BELARUS: Pastor's Joy At Court Ruling.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 16 October 2001

Veniamin Brukh, pastor of the Church of Christ, a Full Gospel Pentecostal church in Minsk, has told Keston News Service of his 'joy' at his church's court victory last month overturning a ban on renting a House of Culture to hold services. 'The 12 September court ruling is a precedent for the whole country,' he declared by telephone from Minsk on 15 October. 'People now understand we can insist on our rights, which no-one can take away from us.' However, the church's request to the local executive committee to be able to rent the House of Culture again remains unanswered and Alla Ryabitseva, the religious affairs official at the city executive committee, told Keston on 15 October that the church will not be allowed to use a House of Culture. 'Let them find other premises,' she declared. She declined to discuss the implications of the ruling and put the phone down.

Religious organisations in Belarus that do not have their own place of worship face an almost impossible task in finding somewhere to meet for worship. They are banned from renting state-owned premises and, at least in Minsk, renting commercial premises, and often find it difficult to buy land to build.

Contacted by telephone on 5 October, Aleksandr Bilyk, the chairman of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, likewise declined to discuss the ruling's implications, also putting the phone down. (In accordance with Decree No. 516, signed by President Aleksandr Lukashenko on 24 September, the committee is to be liquidated and a new structure for religious and ethnic affairs is to be created within the apparatus of the Council of Ministers by 1 November, though the motives behind such a change remain obscure.)

The Church of Christ had challenged point 2 of a city executive committee decision of 6 April 2000 instructing Sukno, the company which owns the House of Culture in the city's Frunze district, to break off the rental agreement. The city executive committee argued that renting the building to a religious organisation violated the law and the following month Sukno wrote to the church cancelling the agreement. However, in its ruling of 12 September, the Minsk city economic court found that the instruction to cancel the rental agreement 'does not accord with the law and harms the rights and interests of the plaintiff which are protected in law'. The court ordered the city executive committee to pay the church's costs of 75,000 roubles (50 US dollars or 35 British pounds). Pastor Brukh told Keston the city executive committee had failed to appeal against the verdict within the prescribed ten day period.

Brukh reported that the church has written to the Frunze district executive committee asking for permission to use the House of Culture again, but received no reply to its first letter within the required response time of one month. 'We could go to court to force a response,' he declared, 'but we want to resolve this calmly.' He added that the church had not yet received the compensation ordered by the court, but expected it 'within days'.

Although the Church of Christ was unable to meet between May and October 2000 because of the restrictions, it now rents a hall belonging to a Pentecostal Church, a common arrangement in Minsk as a result of the ban on renting other premises. 'We share the church with the Pentecostal congregation as well as another church which is also renting from them, so we can only meet by arrangement on Sunday evenings and on Tuesday evenings,' he reported. 'We want to have our own place to meet.' (END)