BELARUS: Christian Paper Editor and Distributors Due in Court.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 3 May 2001

A subscription drive by an interdenominational Protestant newspaper on the streets of the Belarusian capital Minsk has left more than twenty people, including the newspaper's editor, facing charges under the administrative code. Aleksandr Velichko, editor of Slovo (Word), told Keston News Service that the moves against his paper come despite the fact that it is registered with the State Committee for the Press. However, Alla Ryabitseva, head of Minsk executive committee's department for religious and ethnic affairs, denied that the newspaper was the target of any restrictions. She told Keston on 2 May that leaflets issued by Jews for Jesus as a supplement to the paper and handed out at the same time as part of an evangelistic campaign were the cause of the problems. `They can distribute the paper, but the leaflets were issued by a religious organisation that is not registered and its activity is therefore banned,' she declared. `Let them register and then they can conduct propaganda.' However, she put the phone down when asked why copies of Slovo were confiscated and why the editor is facing court proceedings.

The promotional campaign for Slovo was associated with the `Jews for Jesus' mission, held in Minsk from 18 April to 5 May as part of an international campaign. The local branch of the organisation Jews for Jesus applied for registration with the government's State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs on 20 April, but Pastor Nikolai Khaskin of the Zion-Jerusalem Messianic congregation in Minsk was issued a written rejection the following day, signed by the state committee's deputy head, Ivan Yanovich. `They didn't even consider our documents,' an official of the organisation told Keston on 2 May. The organisation again applied for registration on 26 April, but has so far had no response.

Ryabitseva insisted to Keston that under the law, all activity by religious groups without registration is illegal. She rejected suggestions that this violated Belarus' international human rights commitments to freedom of speech and belief.

Police action appears to have been directed as much at Slovo as at the Jews for Jesus leaflets. `People gave out the paper at exits to metro stations and on the streets,' Velichko told Keston by telephone from Minsk on 2 May. `However, the police stopped the distribution and confiscated stocks of the paper, personal property and property of the paper. Further distribution was banned.' He added that some of those detained were held at local police stations for up to four hours.

Velichko has been accused under Article 193 of the administrative code, that punishes `founding and leading an underground religious organisation' with a fine of up to five times the minimum monthly wage. He told Keston that he expects the case to be heard on or soon after 20 May in Minsk's Pervomaisky district court. `Alla Ryabitseva told us that advertising the paper constituted a religious action, that's why the case has been brought.'

In addition, more than 20 volunteers who had distributed the paper and the leaflets on the streets of the capital are facing charges under Article 172 part 3 of the administrative code, which lays down fines of up to three times the minimum monthly wage for `distributing a paper without registration'. Velichko describes the accusation as `absurd', given that Slovo was registered with the State Committee for the Press on 2 March 2000 under certificate number 1457. It is not clear when these cases will come to court.

Slovo, a monthly with a print-run of 10,000 copies, has encountered problems in the past, being closed down briefly in 1996 and 1998. It was able to register last year `not without difficulty', Velichko reported, though it was forced to do so as a social/political and religious publication. `According to a presidential decree, only registered headquarters of religious organisations are allowed to register a religious publication, and even then they can only put out one publication each. Our paper is of purely religious content, that's why we have many problems.'

Velichko added that when Slovo held a conference in Minsk in January devoted to state restrictions on religious groups, he was warned by the department for the supervision of the press of the republic's procuracy that holding such meetings constituted `conducting non-approved activity'. `The round table was attended by Protestants of various groups, a Catholic, the Helsinki Committee, the state-run Skaryna Centre and more than 60 secular journalists and had a great impact as we spoke just about facts and presented documents,' Velichko told Keston. `I was told this represented political, not reporting activity.'

Keston was unable to reach Stanislav Novikov, head of the department for the supervision of the press, to ask why Slovo had been warned not to hold such meetings. (END)