BELARUS: Authorities Try to Demolish Independent Orthodox Church.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 29 July 2002

Just three days after the authorities of Berastavitsa district in western Belarus ordered the demolition of a newly-built church for the local Autocephalous Orthodox parish in the town of Pahranichny, demolition workers moved in on 26 July and tried to destroy the building with bulldozers, Keston News Service has learned. A last-ditch vigil and protest by parishioners and their supporters around the building has so far held off the demolition, though one church defender is now serving a fifteen-day prison term and six have already been fined. "Thanks to the people who surrounded the church and chained themselves to the pillars, the church is still standing," Father Yan Spasyuk told Keston from Pahranichny on 29 July. "I decided we should not take active measures to resist the anti-Christian forces, so as not to lead to bloodshed." He fears that a renewed attempt to destroy the church will come soon. However, officials insisted to Keston that the building is a private house and that it must be destroyed as it has been built illegally.

The Autocephalous Orthodox Church - which claims 70 parishes with 35 priests - has repeatedly been denied state registration in Belarus and many believe the authorities are trying to destroy the Pahranichny church - which Father Spasyuk was due to consecrate on 2 August - in a deliberate attempt to obstruct the Church's activity.

Father Spasyuk reported that the Berastavitsa executive committee - in a letter signed by the first deputy chairman Vasili Grichenko - ordered the church's destruction on 23 July, claiming that it had been built without permission and "without the entire project documentation being approved by the department of territorial planning, town development and architecture". However, Father Spasyuk insists he was given permission to build the 400-square metre (4,300 square foot) building - which combines a church and a residence - by the executive committee back in 2000. "The same officials who signed the order to destroy it signed the original permission."

He added that opposition from the local authorities began after they discovered that the building would be used as an autocephalous Orthodox church, regarding it as a threat to the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, Belarus' largest religious denomination and one backed by the government.

Both officials of the Belarusian Exarchate (see separate KNS article) and the local authorities deny vigorously that the building is a church. "Spasyuk applied for permission to build a private house and then he declared on the television channel NTV that he was building a church," Pyotr Dudko, the Berastavitsa district's religious affairs official declared angrily to Keston on 29 July. "He never told us it was a church. We have one procedure to build a house and another to build a church - or any building where many people gather." Dudko declared that private houses may not be used as churches.

Dudko then went on to attack Father Spasyuk as a "deceiver". "He is not a priest - he was stripped of holy orders twice by the Moscow Patriarchate." Told that Father Spasyuk is the leader in Belarus of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church, Dudko instantly responded: "That church does not exist in Belarus." He pointed out that Father Spasyuk's congregation had been denied registration. Told that religious communities do not need registration in order to exist, Dudko declared: "They do. I know our own laws." He claimed there was nothing to stop Father Spasyuk and his followers meeting for worship in his private flat.

Grichenko of the executive committee, who signed the order to destroy the church, declined to discuss the issue. "You should speak to Pyotr Dudko - it's his responsibility," he told Keston by telephone from Berastavitsa on 29 July. His colleague, Aleksandr Ilyushenko, told Keston the same day that reports of the imminent destruction are "exaggerated". "We are not trying to destroy it."

Parishioners began their vigil to defend the church on 24 July, remaining around the building to try to prevent the bulldozers moving in. "By Friday there were some 80 people defending the church, though the police prevented others from joining in," Father Spasyuk reported.

Executive committee officials accompanied by some 20 police officers tried to begin demolition on 26 July. Four people were detained by the police - Valery Shchukin, who came from Minsk to write about the issue for the paper Narodnaya Volya, human rights activists Dzmitry Harshanaw and Aleh Ramankevich from Hrodna, as well as Andrey Pachobut, a correspondent of the Polish newspaper Glos Znad Niemna, who tried to photograph the equipment and the police. The administrative court in Berastavitsa sentenced the four the same day to fines of between 10,000 to 50,000 Belarusian roubles (6 to 28 US dollars, 6 to 28 Euros or 4 to 18 British pounds) as "violators of the border zone with Poland".

On Sunday 28 July, police cordoned off Pahranichny as renewed attempts were made to demolish the church. Two more people - Sergei Malchik, head of the Hrodna branch of the Vesna human rights centre, and Vladimir Hilmanovich, deputy chairman of the Hrodna affiliate of the Belarusian Association of Journalists - were sentenced to administrative fines of 50,000 roubles each for "violating the passport regime", while Shchukin was sentenced to 15 days' administrative arrest in the police cells in Berastavitsa. "He was illegally detained," Father Spasyuk claimed. "They alleged he was resisting the police. We have witnesses who saw the police beating him while he was lying on the ground."

Father Spasyuk reports that many of the workers due to help demolish the church refused to do so when they learned it was a religious building. He notes that the building was almost complete when the order came for it to be destroyed. Although the electricity supply had earlier been connected to the new church, this has now been cut off. (END)