29 April 2008
Three human rights defenders have been punished for organising the mass petition to challenge the 2002 Religion Law. The three were each fined two months' average wages in late April, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "There is a procedure for such initiatives in any democratic society, and they didn't follow it," Yuri Kulakovsky, chair of the parliamentary Human Rights, Ethnic Relations and Media Committee, insisted to Forum 18. He named Norway as a country that he claimed imposes such procedures. However, Gunnar Martin Ekeløve-Slydal of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee confirmed to Forum 18 that in Norway there is "no need at all to ask for permission to collect signatures in support of peaceful activity". Kulakovsky also claimed that the Religion Law's requirement for compulsory registration of religious organisations, geographical restrictions on their activity, a requirement for state permission for services outside designated houses of worship and a ban on foreign citizens founding or leading religious organisations are fully in line with Belarus' Constitution.
14 April 2008
The Belarusian state appears to have scaled down plans to turn a baroque Catholic monastery into a luxury hotel and entertainment complex, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Unofficial reports suggest that the cultural monument will now house a mini-hotel and/or museum. As Minsk Catholics marked a third year of daily prayer vigils outside the monastery's St Joseph Church, however, there is still no sign that the government intends to fulfil a 17-year-old promise to return the building to believers. Local Catholics have maintained to Forum 18 that a nationwide petition for the return of the monastery, which gained 50,000 signatures, led to a more modest development project. Protestants active in a separate petition to change the country's harsh Religion Law joined the Catholic campaign. No state officials were available to discuss the issue with Forum 18. Although some 95 per cent of historical Orthodox churches in Belarus have been returned, all but a handful of Jewish synagogues remain state property. Lutherans and Calvinists have also had little success in winning back their historical churches.
2 April 2008
Pavel Nozdrya, a member of the charismatic Jesus Christ Church in the southern city of Mozyr who helped gather signatures on a religious freedom petition, told Forum 18 News Service he lost his job as an electrician at the local university in mid-March. He was one of seven members of a church youth group meeting in a private house on 29 February which was raided by local ideology officials. A police officer who visited the same house on Sunday 9 March said he was responding to a warning that a human sacrifice would take place there. Nozdrya attributes the harassment to the church's involvement in the mass petition to amend the restrictive 2002 Religion Law, which was handed to the authorities in late February. Government bodies rejected the petition in late March, claiming that reports of religious freedom violations "do not correspond with reality". Pavel Severinets, an Orthodox Christian involved in the campaign, and members of the Minsk-based charismatic New Life church face prosecution.
20 March 2008
Belarusian and international law upholds the rights of prisoners and detainees to pastoral visits, communal worship and religious literature. But recent prisoners of conscience have described their particular experience of violations to Forum 18 News Service. Artur Finkevich was allowed to attend Catholic Mass just three times during 18 months in jail. "Even though I was constantly filing requests. I think they saw not allowing me to go as part of my re-education." Detained in Minsk since 21 January, political prisoner Andrei Kim has had "no response whatsoever" to his request for a visit by a Protestant pastor, his mother told Forum 18. One political prisoner reported that Catholic and Orthodox ordinary prisoners were forced to work at Easter and Christmas. Belarusian officials have insisted that prisoners' religious freedom is respected. There are currently no prisoners jailed purely for their religious convictions in Belarus.
5 March 2008
Belarus seems to be increasing its use of technical building regulations to harass Protestant churches, Forum 18 News Service notes. The fire safety demands for which one church was fined would have involved moving walls, Pastor Mikhail Kabushko, a Pentecostal in Brest Region, told Forum 18. "Every time they check, there is something new. Even if we were to fulfil everything now, there's no guarantee they won't come up with something more." Separately, the pastor of a Minsk-based charismatic church, who also thinks health and safety demands are being used to oppress Protestants, faces prosecution for refusing to admit state inspectors onto church property. Officials have avoided answering Forum 18's questions. A 50,000-signature, 3,442-page long petition from across Belarus calling for a change to the Religion Law has been submitted to the Constitutional Court, Parliament and Presidential Administration. The Constitutional Court has replied that appeals should be submitted via President Aleksandr Lukashenko, Parliament or other authorised state bodies. These state bodies now have a month to reply to the petition.
20 February 2008
Belarus has tightened its already severe regulations on foreign religious workers, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The changes give the country's top religious affairs official sole discretion in deciding whether religious work by foreign citizens is necessary. The Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs now also has the right not to give reasons for refusing a foreign religious worker's visit, and to shorten a visit "if the period of time required for realisation of the aims for which the foreign citizen is invited does not correspond to that requested." The country's harsh Religion Law states that foreign religious workers must be invited by registered religious associations. These are defined as ten or more state-registered communities, at least one of which must have functioned in Belarus for 20 years. The application procedure for inviting foreign religious workers is also much more detailed than previously. Shortly after the new regulations were published, "the largest non-political, civil campaign in Belarusian history" - a petition to change the 2002 Religion Law - reached its target of 50,000 signatures.
8 February 2008
Belarus has stepped up pressure on the Baptist Council of Churches, issuing a spate of fines for unregistered religious activity, Forum 18 News Service observes. The Council's congregations reject state registration in post-Soviet countries, believing that it leads to government interference. One of those recently prosecuted, Nikolai Varushin, told Forum 18: "This is our path; we are prepared to suffer for our faith. We just pray that our people will remain true to the Lord." In defiance of international human rights standards, Belarus is the only country in Europe to ban unregistered religious activity. While not including Baptists among their number, the judge in one of the recent cases, Aleksei Belotsky, told Forum 18 that the state regulates religious activity to protect citizens from "destructive sects". The increased pressure on Protestants coincides with a number of prominent public statements on the religious situation in Belarus by state officials. For example, Leonid Gulyako, Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, recently announced that in 2008 "measures will be activated to prevent the spread of neo-cults and pseudo-religions."
7 February 2008
Active Protestant churches in Belarus are facing increased pressure, Forum 18 News Service notes. In response to the indefinite adjournment of a court case to decide the fate of their church building, the congregation of New Life Church in the capital Minsk has opted for civil disobedience. They are refusing to let state inspectors with the power to impose fines onto church property. With fire, electricity and other inspectors repeatedly but unsuccessfully trying to gain access to the church, its pastor is now threatened with a fine. An assistant public prosecutor has warned that, if the obstruction continues, "we could be talking about another form of punishment." The impasse appears to be due to the authorities' disarray over which state body should resolve the issue. A senior religious affairs official told Forum 18 that the Minsk city authorities are primarily responsible for New Life's situation, but Minsk's chief religious affairs official told Forum 18 that "I'm not responsible to them for anything!" A similar case appears to be developing in Baranovichi, where New Generation Church was recently fined for alleged incorrect land use.
11 January 2008
A regional religious affairs official in Belarus has defended the legality of a fine, imposed on Baptist pastor Yuri Kravchuk in mid-December for unregistered religious activity. "Just like in any other country," the official in the western city of Grodno, who declined to be named, insisted to Forum 18 News Service, "all religious organisations must be registered in order to have the right to function." In defiance of international human rights standards, Belarus is the only country in Europe making state registration compulsory before religious activity can take place. Asked why registration was needed, the official remarked that this was not a question for him. "I don't write the laws, I just implement them," he explained to Forum 18. "Here in the Republic of Belarus we have our own laws, whether good or bad. We think they're good, other people might think they're bad." Meanwhile, on 10 January the charismatic New Generation Church in Baranovichi won in court as officials tried yet again to seize their church building from them.
17 December 2007
Pastor Dmitry Osyko was fined about two weeks' average wages on 14 December for leading a worship service in November in a private home in the western town of Baranovichi, a court official told Forum 18 News Service. The two homeowners, Stepan Paripa and Nikolai Pestak, were each fined more than one month's average wages. Their Baptist congregation refuses to seek state registration and officials arrived at the service to declare it illegal. "They can't use a private home as a place of worship," local ideology official Ruslan Krutko, who interrupted the service, explained to Forum 18. "You couldn't use a private home as a public toilet, could you?" He said the church members need a registered place of worship to be able to "pray to God". Church members insist that Belarus' Constitution and Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantee their right to meet for worship freely with others. Pastor Osyko is the latest of many religious leaders to have been fined for leading unregistered worship.
7 December 2007
A religious affairs official in the south-eastern region of Gomel is dismissive of the rights of the parishioners of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in the town of Rechytsa. He claimed to Forum 18 News Service that they will "lose nothing" when their veteran parish priest, Polish citizen Fr Grzegorz Chudek, is forced to leave Belarus. The priest was ordered to leave by 1 December, but his visa has now been extended by two months. During this period he is "of course" not permitted to work in his parish, the official said. He repeatedly refused to tell Forum 18 how Fr Chudek had broken the law. "No one has told me if or when he might have to leave, let alone why," Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek told Forum 18. But Fr Chudek appears not to have had his annual visa renewed due to his description of social malaise in Belarus given to a Polish newspaper earlier in 2007. More than 700 local Catholics have appealed to President Aleksandr Lukashenko for the decision to be withdrawn. Foreign religious workers invited by local religious communities are under tight state control and need permission specifying where they will work. An increasing number of Catholic and Protestant religious workers have been barred from Belarus.
22 November 2007
Gennadi Ryzhkov, pastor of a Council of Churches Baptist congregation in Osipovichi in the eastern Mogilev Region, has failed in his appeal to have a fine for leading unregistered worship overturned, a court official confirmed to Forum 18 News Service. He is now due to pay the fine of nearly one month's average wages for leading his church's harvest festival. Mikhail Sotnichenko, in whose yard the September service took place, told Forum 18 that the church does not agree with the state's action. "We are still holding services, of course." But the local Ideology Department head defended her actions. "Under the law a church must register, but they refuse registration," Anna Zemlyanukhina told Forum 18. "I don't agree that it's persecution. Let them meet - but they must register first." Forum 18 notes that while the number of such fines in Belarus has fallen in recent years the level of fines is often much higher. Meanwhile, the nationwide petition to change the restrictive 2002 Religion Law has gathered nearly 40,000 signatures, its spokesperson Sergei Lukanin told Forum 18.