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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

COMMENTARY: Bayatyan – a European Court judgment with an impact far beyond Armenia

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has unequivocally declared that conscientious objection to military service is protected under Article 9 ("Freedom of thought, conscience and religion") of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws/ argues, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service, that the ECtHR judgment in favour of Vahan Bayatyan, an Armenian Jehovah's Witness jailed for conscientious objection to compulsory military service has implications far beyond Armenia. He notes that the judgment also has implications for Azerbaijan and Turkey within the Council of Europe, and for states outside the organisation such as Belarus. He suggests that the ECtHR may develop its thinking to directly address the problem of coercion to change a belief such as conscientious objection, as well as to follow the UN Human Rights Committee in strengthening the protection of conscientious objection.

BELARUS: "Clergy access is something exceptional in pre-trial detention centres"

Three months after his arrest, the closed trial of Grodno-based journalist Andrzej Poczobut on charges of slandering Belarus' president is likely to conclude tomorrow (5 July) with the verdict. He has been denied a visit from a priest since his April arrest. "He is a true Roman Catholic and all this time in detention he has asked for a priest more than once, but the prison administration always found excuses not to grant it," his wife Aksana Poczobut complained to Forum 18. One of the two Catholic prison chaplains, Fr Kazimir Zylis, told Forum 18 he has been waiting for permission from the Prosecutor's Office to visit Poczobut. Forum 18 also knows of pre-trial detainees denied clergy visits in the KGB secret police detention centre in the capital Minsk and in the city's Detention Centre No. 1, which is run by the Interior Ministry. "Clergy access is something exceptional in pre-trial detention centres," Oleg Gulak of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee told Forum 18.

COMMENTARY: Advancing Freedom of Religion or Belief: Agendas for Change

"Rather than being a celebration of a thing of worth, the approach currently adopted by the international political community to religious freedom is dominated by the language of special pleading, disadvantage, hostility, and hate. This must change", argued Professor Malcolm Evans in a lecture hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and published in abbreviated form by Forum 18.
Agendas such as "defamation of religions, incitement to religious hatred, combating antisemitism, Islamophobia, Christianophobia, Discrimination against Christians, etc." risk, Professor Evans notes, being "self-defeating by being self-serving". "The predominant interest which faith communities show in the rights of their own" forms a barrier. "Unless and until that barrier is overcome, the ability of the international community to engage effectively with the protection of the freedom of religion or belief as a human right will be diminished".
Calling for work to re-start on a UN Convention, Professor Evans observes of some approaches: "The question which continually gets lost in these twists and turns is simple, but important: 'Why not start with the idea of the freedom of religion or belief for everyone?'" For, states are the source "in reality, [of] most of the restrictions placed on the freedom of religion or belief - and, therefore, much of the hostility and violence which believers face".
Professor Evans identifies the need to "roll back the essentially negative approaches of recent years and champion a more positive vision of what religious freedom has to offer". He ends by noting signs of positive change, and calling on Christians and those of other faiths and none to "champion the freedoms of others as well as of ourselves".

BELARUS: Priest's visit "inexpedient" / Fresh Criminal Code Article 193-1 threat

The Co-Chair of Belarus' Christian Democracy movement, Pavel Severinets, was for five months in detention repeatedly denied the possibility of a visit he requested from an Orthodox priest, he has told Forum 18 News Service. Severinets was speaking after he was given an open jail term for his political activities, at a trial along with two other opposition political activists and human rights defenders. The authorities admitted to Severinets that he had every legal right to see a priest, he told Forum 18. He suspects that the denial was due to his refusal to work for the KGB secret police as an informer, and his unwillingness to plead guilty to organising a riot. Elsewhere, Nikolai Varushin, a member of an unregistered Baptist church has been threatened with punishment under Criminal Code Article 193-1, which carries a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment. This is the second recent occasion in which the use of Article 193-1 – which has not previously been used to repress freedom of religion or belief – has been threatened against an unregistered religious community.

BELARUS: Authorities "have the right" to raid unregistered worship

Raided during worship on successive Sundays in February were two separate Council of Churches Baptist congregations in Belarus, as they told Forum 18 News Service. The pastor of one is awaiting administrative trial for "holding an unauthorised religious service" and religious literature confiscated from him has not been returned. Three members of the other congregation were officially warned that if they continue to worship without state registration they could face criminal prosecution and a possible two year prison term. "Every registered organisation has a Charter and the authorities control how the community follows it. This is unacceptable for us," one of the three, Natalia Zavalei, told Forum 18. Ideology official Svetlana Starovoitova, who joined KGB officers in raiding Zavalei's congregation, insisted to Forum 18 that its worship was illegal. A religious affairs official in the capital Minsk, Mikhail Rybakov, told Forum 18 that for communities of any faith worshipping without registration "the authorities have the right to interrupt services".

BELARUS: Why can't derelict church be relocated for worship?

Officials in the Belarusian capital have refused to allow a derelict historic Pomore Old Believer church to be transferred from a remote northern village where no local Old Believers remain to serve the community in Minsk. Community leader Aleksandr Belov told Forum 18 News Service the relocation would give the Minsk community an affordable yet dignified place of worship, and at the same time preserve a part of their treasured heritage. He says the church is significant for them because "this is the church where our community has prayed". Despite repeated calls, Forum 18 could not reach officials of the city Architecture Department, or the senior city religious affairs official. However, in a letter seen by Forum 18, the Architecture Department's First Deputy Head, Aleksei Martynov, told the community that given that the church has to suit its environment, "we consider it inexpedient to transfer the wooden church to the urban environment of a big city like Minsk".

BELARUS: 'Forbidden Christ' and right to legally challenge warnings forbidden

'Forbidden Christ', a Belarusian film documenting Soviet-era persecution of Protestant churches, was banned from a Catholic film festival by the Belarusian State Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, Forum 18 News Service has learned. It was seized from film director Aleksei Shein and sent for an "expert analysis" to the KGB secret police. However, the KGB told Forum 18 that it would be returned to Shein. He told Forum 18 that "perhaps the authorities fear that some believers will see a parallel with what is happening in our country now". Separately, the latest attempts by Jehovah's Witnesses to establish the right to legally challenge official warnings against literature distribution have failed. Both the Supreme Court and Gomel Regional Prosecutor's Office have rejected the right to make such legal challenges - despite a Constitutional Court decision upholding the right to make them. One Jehovah's Witness community has been warned that it faces liquidation if it continues to distribute literature.

BELARUS: Bible school food fine, frozen church bank account

A pastor in Belarus has been fined for alleged unsanitary conditions for food served to children at a summer Bible school. Trouble began when local Ideology official Vladimir Zagorsky with two other officials visited the Bible school. Zagorsky maintained that schools have the "duty to control children going to churches during school holidays". He was unable to explain to Forum 18 what law imposed this "duty", or how this matched individuals' right to a private life. Also, for more than two months New Life Pentecostal Church in the capital Minsk has had to exist without a legal bank account. It was frozen after two large fines were imposed in July. "By law, all the contributions we receive have to be placed in our bank account by the following day. We can't do this", the church's lawyer told Forum 18. Paying staff wages and pension contributions is now difficult, and some charities the church supports will not accept gifts in cash, he added. "The church's life and worship continues, but administratively things are difficult."

BELARUS: Executed prisoner denied religious burial

The mother of executed prisoner Andrei Zhuk has filed a legal case against Belarus' refusal to release her son's body or to tell her where he was buried. Svetlana Zhuk complained, in an appeal seen by Forum 18 News Service, that she was "denied the possibility to bury my son in accordance with the demands of Orthodox Christianity". She insists this was a religious freedom violation under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). "Whatever an individual's crimes, according to church canons relatives have the right to pray for the deceased and bury them with church rites," a Russian Orthodox priest told Forum 18. "We should pray for such individuals deeply, as we pray for all sinners." Human rights defender Raman Kisliak commented to Forum 18 that "such a violation of freedom of conscience is impermissible in a state that is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights." The Interior Ministry wrote to Svetlana Zhuk, stating that under Belarusian law: "Bodies are not handed over for burial and the location of burial is not communicated." No date has yet been set to hear the case, but officials expect it to be heard within ten days.

BELARUS: "Appropriate permission is needed"

The pastor of a Belarusian village Pentecostal church has been fined three times in one day for sharing his faith outdoors in a nearby village, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Viktor Novik has decided not to appeal and to pay the fines, telling Forum 18 that "we resolved to suffer for God." The verdict claimed that Pastor Novik "understands that to hold events, appropriate permission is needed." Novik told Forum 18 that – as the verdict confirms - he had applied several times for this and to rent a building for a meeting, but each time this was refused. One local official dnied this, telling Forum 18 that "he never applied, verbally or in writing," before stating that no building would be made available. Elsewhere, courts have refused to acquit one person for the "crime" of conscientious objection to compulsory military service, but two others have been acquitted. Fears have been expressed that at least one of the three may be prosecuted again for the same "crime". A coalition of civil society groups has presented published proposals for an Alternative Service Law to a state working group on the subject, but has yet to receive any acknowledgement of this.

BELARUS: Another massive fine, right to worship on own property denied

New Life Pentecostal Church in Belarus' capital Minsk has had a massive fine imposed on it today (29 July), for alleged "environmental damage", Forum 18 News Service has learned. Added to an earlier fine, the two fines and "compensation" total 265,750,000 Belarusian Roubles (542,850 Norwegian Kroner, 68,250 Euros, or 89,300 US Dollars). Sergei Lukanin, the church's lawyer, told Forum 18 that the Church will pay neither fine, arguing that if there is any pollution at the site it dates from the time before the church owned the property. He insisted that the church has kept the building and site in good order, a contention which Forum 18's own observations on visits support. A city environmental official claimed in an official report on the Church before the fines that grass growing for a children's playground damaged the environment. Meanwhile, two small Pentecostal churches in villages near Minsk have been fined for using the properties they own for worship. Officials claim the properties are registered for domestic use and therefore worship is illegal. The small congregations will struggle to pay these fines, a church member said. "The fear is that officials could do this again – the mechanism is there," Forum 18 was told.

BELARUS: Will proposed new Alternative Service Law respect conscientious objections?

Ivan Mikhailov, Dmitry Smyk and Yevhen Yakovenko - the three young men convicted since late 2009 of refusing compulsory military service on grounds of conscience - separately told Forum 18 News Service that they want the proposed new Alternative Service Law now being drafted to introduce a fully-civilian service, not of punitive length and open to all conscientious objectors, whether religious or not. Mikhail Pashkevich of the group For Alternative Civilian Service insisted to Forum 18 that applicants for alternative civilian service should be able simply to inform the authorities of this decision without having to "prove" their entitlement. President Aleksandr Lukashenko's instruction in February that an Alternative Service Law be drafted came a decade after Belarus' Constitutional Court ruled that introducing an alternative service in line with provisions in the Constitution was "urgent".