BELARUS: Years On, Adventist Church Fires Remain Unexplained.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 8 May 2002

A series of arson attacks on three Adventist churches in Belarus in 2000 and 2001 remain unexplained, Keston News Service has learnt. Moisei Ostrovsky, Belarus' Adventist leader, told Keston on 7 May from the Belarusian capital Minsk that in the case of an attack on the church in Tolochin, the Adventists strongly suspect the local authorities of involvement, although the deputy mayor Mikhail Zavadsky has vigorously rejected any such allegation. Zavadsky added that a man is in custody suspected of burning down the church. Arson attacks on places of worship in Belarus have resumed of late, with Orthodox churches and a Catholic chapel being destroyed this year and synagogues desecrated with graffiti (see separate KNS article).

The Adventist church in Tolochin, a town north east of Minsk, was destroyed by fire on 21 April 2001. During an initial fire in the early morning, only the exterior of the church was in flames. Firefighters arrived at 5 am and extinguished the blaze within minutes and church members determined that the damaged walls could be restored. The local fire chief and police officers said they had no doubt the fire had been set by arsonists. Firefighters disconnected electric and gas lines to the church and drenched the building with water before leaving. "Not even smoke remained," reported one eye-witness.

Two hours later a second fire destroyed the entire building. Church members say the fire service responded slowly to the second emergency call, while response to the first fire had been immediate. In his official analysis, the fire chief stated that the blaze had ignited itself

The Tolochin church, originally built as a private house, had been purchased and remodelled by the 30-strong congregation several years earlier. Members landscaped the area around the building and erected a small sign with the name of the church. In early 2001, Tolochin's deputy mayor Aleksandr Shnerkevich told Pastor Andrei Volokhov to remove the sign, but because the Adventists believed it violated no city codes, members decided to leave it. According to several Adventist witnesses, Shnerkevich warned them that buildings such as theirs had been known to burn down.

Zavadsky, who took over from Shnerkevich as deputy mayor, admitted to Keston on 8 May from Tolochin that Shnerkevich had warned the Adventists of the possibility of a fire but claimed this had been designed to help them prevent such an occurrence. "He didn't want a fire to happen," Zavadsky insisted. He said the warning had been issued because the building had not been registered as a place of worship. "There were no threats. Shnerkevich just pointed out the law that the building was registered only as a private house, so couldn't be used as a church." He described it as a "coincidence" that only a few months after the warning a fire had indeed taken place.

Zavadsky was unable to say what had caused the fire, but resolutely rejected Adventist suspicions that the authorities had been involved. "I can tell you officially that the authorities had nothing to do with the fire. We were as devastated by it as the Adventists." He said that although no-one lived there regularly an upstairs light was often left on and an electrical fault may have caused the fire. He then added that police had arrested a man in February for a series of alleged thefts and that the man had admitted to breaking into the church and starting the fire. He said the man (whom he refused to name) was now in isolation investigation cell (known as a SIZO) while the investigation established whether he was or was not guilty. Zavadsky did not explain why there were still two conflicting explanations one year after the fire.

The two earlier arson attacks also remain unexplained to this day, Ostrovsky told Keston. In summer 2000 an Adventist church in Polotsk in northern Belarus was damaged by a fire started with flammable liquids. Local authorities stated that the fire was set by Jehovah's Witnesses, allegations rejected out of hand by the Adventists. "It is not true the Jehovah's Witnesses were responsible," Ostrovsky told Keston. "However, we believe it was the work of Orthodox extremists, although again no-one has ever been found." He said Orthodox frequently visited the church and complained that the Adventists were a "sect" who should not be allowed in their "Orthodox town". Adventists rebuilt the Polotsk church, but three months later it was again destroyed by fire. Officials cited lightning as the cause.

The Polotsk church has since been rebuilt again, but Ostrovsky complains that the authorities do nothing to protect it from minor attacks when windows are broken. "Earlier this year the watchman called the police after detaining an intruder in the middle of the night," Ostrovsky reported. "However the police just let him go in the morning, apparently believing his story that he wanted to talk to the pastor."

In autumn 2000 the Adventist church in the town of Bykhov in Mogilev region east of Minsk was burned to the ground. The town administration announced that homeless people had started the blaze. "No-one has been found here either and the police are not looking for anyone," Ostrovsky declared. He added that the Adventists' own inquiry had concluded that the authorities were not likely to have been involved. The Bykhov church is still meeting in private homes, but plans to try to buy a place for services. (END)