24 November 1999

BELARUSIAN PRIEST ON HUNGER STRIKE AGAINST HARASSMENT AND REFUSAL TO REGISTER CHURCH BY BELARUSIAN AUTHORITIES. by Felix Corley, Keston News Service A priest of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, who has been on hunger strike for more than two weeks to protest against a police raid on a service, has called on the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to help the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Father YAN SPASYUK, who is from the village of Pogranichny in Berestovitsa district in the west of Belarus, addressed an appeal to the Istanbul summit of the OSCE (which met 17-19 November) to protest about his treatment at the hands of the authorities. He claims the authorities are refusing to register his parish and harassing his parishioners. Spasyuk began his hunger strike on 7 November after local police broke into a private house where a prayer service was being held and demanded that it should be stopped on the grounds that the parish was not registered with the local executive authorities. An 8 November report by the Belapan news agency declared that Spasyuk believed that the authorities' failure to register the church could be explained by pressure from the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. The agency quoted Spasyuk as saying that local and Minsk officials had repeatedly said that there should not and would not be a Belarusian church there. `The congregation was indignant at the police's action,' Belapan reported, `which was ordered by the local authorities and involved the entering of private premises and threats to take Spasyuk to a psychiatric hospital. After the hunger strike was announced, many in the congregation refused to leave the church.' The church reportedly claims to have about 300 members and a Sunday school and has been awaiting registration since 1998. Just as people in Belarus `saw their dream of an independent state and an independent church coming true,' forces emerged that `are determined to prevent the BAOC and its parishes from registering, in violation of the Constitution and the Freedom of Religion Law', declared Spasyuk's appeal to the OSCE summit, as quoted by the Belapan news agency on 17 November. `Lawfulness, impunity and irresponsibility, which thrive in Belarus now, make people think that the Constitution guarantees power only to the ruling elite.' However, in a telephone interview with Keston News Service on 23 November, IVAN YANOVICH, the deputy chairman of the State Committee for Religious Affairs and Ethnic Minorities, declared that the application for registration of Spasyuk's community was being considered by his committee. `The expert commission will reach a decision in early December,' he declared. `The community has the ten people they need to apply for registration and, if their statute does not contradict the law, they will receive registration.' He advised Keston to wait until that decision has been made before reporting the story. Yanovich did not have the details to hand as to when the community lodged its registration application (he believed it was in early November), but affirmed that under the law the State Committee had one month to reach a decision on a registration application. Asked about the report of the police raid on a prayer service held by the community, Yanovich reported that the State Committee had `no reliable reports' about such a raid, but declared that the law does not allow unregistered religious meetings. `If a community does not have registration it has no right to hold services - that's the law.' Asked how he reconciled that with Belarus' commitments to religious freedom as a member of the OSCE and under international human rights instruments, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which the country has signed, Yanovich simply declared: `It's in the law. Religious groups must have registration.' Asked what would happen to a group that functions without registration he responded: `It's considered an administrative, not a criminal offence. The first time people would be warned, then they would be fined.' Yanovich claimed that Father Spasyuk was a former priest in the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church who had left `after conflicts with the church leadership'. He claimed that Spasyuk had spent all the church council's money or had used it for purposes for which it was not intended. `The case has been handed over to the law-enforcement agencies. They are now considering it. No charges have been brought yet.' He stressed that the allegations against Spasyuk did not fall under the State Committee's competence. However, Yanovich confirmed that the authorities in Belarus had not registered one single community of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. `There has been one application - from the community in Pogranichny. No other communities have applied.' Given that religious communities initially have to lodge their registration applications with the local authorities in the region where they function, it is not clear how many attempts have been made by other Autocephalous communities to gain registration. At least one Autocephalous community - that led by PETRO HUSHCHA in the village of Siomkav Haradok near Minsk - tried to register in 1998 but was blocked by the authorities. Hushcha was arrested in March 1998 on charges of `malicious hooliganism' after allegedly exposing himself to two young girls and was sentenced in August 1998 to three years' imprisonment. His sentence was reduced to a two year probational term by the Supreme Court in October 1998, but the Minsk City Court Presidium reinstated the three-year sentence on 4 December 1998. However, he went into hiding to avoid being sent back to prison. Many believe the charges against Hushcha were fabricated to obstruct his work with the Autocephalous Church. A statement on Hushcha's case distributed by the Permanent Mission of Belarus to the United Nations in June 1998 admitted that no Autocephalous communities had been registered. `After [a visit to Belarus in 1994 of an Autocephalous leader from the United States, YURI RYZHY-RIZHSKY] followers of the given confession appeared in the Republic of Belarus. Those who founded the communities have, as a rule, entered into conflict with the Belarusian Orthodox Church. Not one of them has been permitted to gain official registration of its statute because of failure to accord with the demands of current legislation.' The opposition from both the state authorities and the leadership of the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church to the registration of any Autocephalous communities is clear. `Unlike many other national Autocephalous Orthodox churches, the Belarusian church has no common head or distinct hierarchy, with parishes existing on their own,' the Belapan news agency declared in its 17 November report. Yanovich reported that the registration application lodged by Spasyuk's community did not include a telephone number and Keston has been unable to reach him or his community for comment. (END). All Keston News Service material is protected by copyright: (c) Keston Institute 1999 Reproduction for personal use only. Subscription payments directly help religious freedom as we cannot provide this material unless we have income. Accredited journalists may quote from KNS in non-electronic publications providing Keston Institute is acknowledged as the source. If you have colleagues and friends who you think would be interested in receiving KNS, please invite them to log on to our website http://www.keston.org/ which has details of some latest KNS stories with sample articles. It also has details of our magazine 'Frontier' and academic journal 'Religion, State & Society'. Subscription information is on the website and at the end of this message. SUBSCRIBE TO KNS VIA OUR WEBSITE http://www.keston.org/ -or- send your GIFT AID/CAF/VISA/MASTERCARD/EUROCARD payable to: Keston Institute 4 Park Town Oxford OX2 6SH UK Tel.: + 44 1865/31 10 22; Fax: + 44 1865/31 12 80; E-mail: keston.institute@keston.org ***with CREDIT CARD payment, please include: your CARD NUMBER, EXPIRY DATE and MAILING ADDRESS. WE CANNOT PROCESS YOUR PAYMENT WITHOUT ALL THREE PIECES OF INFORMATION.*** DEUTSCHES SPENDENKONTO Empfänger:  Kirchenkreis Koblenz Stichwort   "Keston Institute" !!! Bank:   Sparkasse Koblenz Kontonummer: 14043 BLZ:   570 501 20 AUTOMATIC BANK TRANSFER (from anywhere in the world): Keston Institute, Account No. 0106411835 National Westminster Bank Plc (Branch code 50-31-88) 11 High Street, Chislehurst KENT BR7 5AL, England COST per annum: 30 pounds sterling/$62 private; 100 pounds sterling/$160 for organisations with the right to reproduce in non-electronic subsciption- based publications, provided credit to Keston is given.