BELARUS: Pastor Banned From Religious Activity.

by Lorna Howard and Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 30 July 2001

A Ukrainian pastor who has long worked in the Belarusian capital Minsk `does not have the right to conduct any public religious activity' in Belarus, a senior official of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs has told Keston News Service. Pastor Veniamin Brukh of the Church of Jesus Christ has been accused under Article 185 of the administrative code of `carrying out religious activity without permission', despite the fact that his 1000-strong church wants him to continue as its pastor. The official, Aleksandr Kalinov, told Keston on 30 July that Brukh does not have and would not get the `special permission from the appropriate government organ' - his committee - required under Article 11 of the law on foreign citizens, insisting that Bible colleges in Belarus are producing enough graduates, so Protestant churches do not need foreign pastors. `There's no need for him.'

On 17 July two policemen, Aleksandr Mashkin and Vladislav Spirin, approached Brukh after a church service and began asking about his passport and citizenship. He said he would only answer such questions at the police station, and went the next day to the Moskovsky district police station, where he was served with notice of the charge against him, in the presence of Kalinov from the State Committee and Valentina Bulovkina of Minsk City Council.

Contacted by Keston on 30 July, both Mashkin and Spirin initially declined to answer any questions about Brukh's case, declaring in almost identical wording that they did not give out official information by telephone. Mashkin subsequently denied to Keston that he was the same Aleksandr Mashkin who had questioned Brukh after the service. `I don't know him.' Spirin insisted that `everything had been done in accordance with the law,' but added that he had `no time' to discuss the case.

`It seems that my hour has come,' Brukh told Keston from Minsk on 26 July. `I may be forced to leave the country.' However, Kalinov told Keston there was `no talk' of expelling Brukh from Belarus, merely of halting his religious activity with the church.

As a citizen of Ukraine, Brukh has to apply each year to the State Committee for approval of the invitation from his church to carry out religious activity, and until April this year had had no difficulty in obtaining approval. He told Keston that he thought the authorities' patience with him had run out after his church took employees of the Committee to court for `not responding to a request by nearly 1000 citizens' (a request to renew Brukh's permission to carry out religious activity). Kalinov admitted to Keston that Brukh had been invited through the proper procedures by Aleksandr Sakovich, the head of the Union of Full Gospel Churches to which Brukh's church belongs, but insisted that such an invitation is not good enough if the state withholds permission.

Kalinov vehemently denied any government interference in the activity of religious groups, but could not explain how his Committee's veto on foreign pastors squared with international human rights commitments - to which Belarus is a party - specifying that religious organisations should be allowed to choose their own leaders freely. `Our laws do accord with all international human rights conventions,' he claimed.

Before a foreign citizen legally in Belarus can preach, or even address a religious community, the State Committee needs to have a written request from the religious community, a copy of the individual's religious education certificate and itself needs to grant written permission. Kalinov rejected suggestions that these bureaucratic requirements violate the freedom of religious communities to decide for themselves how to conduct their own activities.

Brukh was accused earlier this year of ‘speaking for a non-existent organisation’ (see KNS 19 January 2001), and has also come into conflict with the authorities over Minsk City Council's decision no. 344 point 2, which denied his church, along with all other religious organisations, the right to rent property. An appeal against the decision, submitted by him and a number of other church leaders, is due to be heard in court on 10 August.

Brukh has lodged an official complaint to the Minsk City Police about the administrative case against him, of which Keston has obtained a copy. He protests there is no law which states what kind of `permission' is required to carry out religious activity, and that no law defines `religious activity', so there are no criteria by which to judge whether his actions count as religious activity or not. He told Keston that Kalinov had told him that the Committee has expressed an opinion defining religious activity in a letter to the Full Gospel Union. `But this is just the opinion of civil servants, not an act of law', Brukh commented. Kalinov told Keston that activity barred to Brukh as a foreign citizen without special permission included preaching, teaching and speaking to the church in any form. (END)