BELARUS: Catholics Believe Vandals Were Behind Church Arson.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 8 May 2002

A Catholic priest in the Belarusian capital Minsk has told Keston News Service that an arson attack that destroyed a Catholic chapel in a village on the edge of Minsk was most likely caused by vandals. "I don't believe the authorities were involved," Father Vladislav Zavalnyuk told Keston by telephone on 7 May, "and evidence points to drug addicts or Satanists. It is unlikely they will ever be found." He pointed out that an Orthodox church was burnt down at the beginning of the year in Korolev Stan near Minsk and police have still not been able to identify any suspects. However, one year on from an arson attack that destroyed an Adventist church in the town of Tolochin - which likewise remains unsolved - Adventist leaders believe the attack "could have been" at the instigation of the local authorities which had already issued what the Adventists took as veiled threats that it would be burnt down.

"Of course no-one was ever found and sentenced," Moisei Ostrovsky, Belarus' Adventist leader, told Keston on 7 May from Minsk. "Although we have no conclusive proof, we strongly suspect the local authorities."

Stanislav Buko, chairman of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, rejected any suggestion that the authorities might have been involved in the Tolochin arson attack. "They couldn't have been involved."

Buko insisted that "of course" the police have a duty to protect places of worship and identify and punish those who attack them. "The state, the local authorities and the police are there to help protect places of worship," he told Keston from Minsk on 8 May. "These are our heritage. Our people worship in them." He described those carrying out such attacks as "not normal", but admitted catching them was often difficult. "Those perpetrating the attacks work furtively and we don't have a special guard to protect places of worship. We can't send police to defend every place of worship."

The Catholic chapel in the village of Kuntsevshchina - which was only opened for worship five years ago - was hit by arsonists for a second time in the night of 28-29 April and was completely destroyed, reported Father Zavalnyuk, priest of the Church of Sts Simon and Helen. Firefighters soon arrived but were unable to save the chapel. Although the police are obliged to respond to such emergencies, he added, they failed to do so, pleading a lack of fuel. "You have to understand the difficult economic conditions in our country," Father Zavalnyuk declared. However, Buko rejected this, insisting that it was "impossible" for the police not to have arrived for lack of fuel. "The police and the fire service always have fuel," he claimed. In a follow-up phone call Buko denied that a fire had taken place at the end of April, saying he only knew of the unsuccessful arson attack on the chapel on 1 April, which the police had attended.

Father Zavalnyuk pledged that the chapel would be rebuilt. "We must pray, and find a sponsor," he said. He added that until the chapel is rebuilt, services will be held in the open air. Buko, however, complained that Father Zavalnyuk had built the original chapel "illegally" without permission on private land. Yet he insisted that this made no difference in the way the police would have dealt with any attack on it.

Synagogues have also been regularly attacked and vandalised in Belarus. In the most recent incidents in late April, anti-Semitic graffiti was daubed on the walls of the synagogue in the southern town of Pinsk, as well as on the office of the future Jewish school.

Three Adventist churches were destroyed in arson attacks in recent years. As well as the attack that destroyed the church in Tolochin in 2001, the churches in Polotsk and Bykhov had been burnt down in 2000. No-one has been prosecuted for these attacks (see separate KNS article).

Ostrovsky knows it is hard to identify culprits for attacks on places of worship that happen under the cover of darkness, but believes the authorities should do more. "The police don't consider these arson attacks on our churches important, but we regard them as very important." Buko of the State Committee denies such suggestions. "The state is not indifferent," he declared. (END)