BELARUS: Independent Orthodox Church Bulldozed.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 2 August 2002

Today (2 August) was to have been the day the Autocephalous Orthodox church in the village of Pahranichny close to Belarus' western border with Poland was consecrated. Instead, at 8 pm on 1 August, the village was surrounded by troops in camouflage uniforms, carrying automatic weapons, all roads were blocked off and even villagers were not allowed to pass, Keston News Service has learned. Cranes and bulldozers were brought in, together with a bus full of people to conduct the demolition. "They destroyed the church completely, completely," Aleksandr Antonyuk, secretary of the consistory of the Autocephalous Church and legal adviser to parish priest Father Yan Spasyuk, told Keston from the nearby town of Hrodna on 2 August. Antonyuk pledges that the Church will try to challenge the destruction through the courts. "I am not optimistic."

The demolition is the first case known to Keston in any of the former Soviet republics outside Central Asia where a place of worship has been deliberately destroyed to prevent religious activity taking place. It has brought condemnation from the local human rights community. "This shows the authorities' complete lack of respect for religious rights - for people who want to confess a faith as they choose," Harri Pahonyailo, deputy chair of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, told Keston from Minsk on 2 August.

The Autocephalous Orthodox Church has repeatedly been denied registration in Belarus, and various officials have described the Church to Keston as a "non-existent religious group", despite the fact that it has some 70 parishes in the country. When the newspaper Nasha Niva published information on 4 January about forthcoming Christmas services in the Holy Cross autocephalous parish and Father Spasyuk's Christmas greetings on 11 January, the prosecutor general's office warned the paper that as the parish and the Church are not registered, the newspaper violated Article 5 of the Press Law, which states that the mass media are not allowed to publish any information from unregistered public organisations, and Article 32, which provides for the public's right to receive "truthful information" about the activities of public organisations through the media.

Antonyuk said he did not know whether the troops who surrounded the village were from the army, the KGB, the Border Guards or the Interior Ministry. He suspects the workers brought in to destroy the church were new police recruits. Earlier attempts to destroy the church had failed thanks to opposition from parishioners and their supporters and, reportedly, the refusal of workers to destroy a place of worship (see KNS 29 July 2002).

Pahonyailo expressed concern about 60-year-old Helsinki Committee member Valery Shchukin, sentenced on 28 July to 15 days' imprisonment under Article 166 of the administrative code after travelling to Pahranichny from Minsk to write about the church destruction for the paper Narodnaya Volya. The Belarusian PEN-Centre also condemned Shchukin's imprisonment. "His only crime was in trying to report in the press the scandalous attempt by the local authorities to destroy the building of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. For this intention, the journalist received 15 days of jail. Such actions by the authorities contradict Belarusian and international legislation and violate an individual's right to carry out professional duties. These actions do not correspond to the interests of our state and discredit it in the eyes of the world community."

Antonyuk declined to tell Keston of Father Spasyuk's current whereabouts (Keston had been unable to reach him by telephone), but said he had met him last night. Antonyuk had also spoken to local people who had witnessed the destruction, though he could not reach the demolished building because of the authorities' cordon. They had also told him the two and a half metre (eight foot) high crosses put up next to the church had been broken down.

The consecration, which should have taken place today, was to have been attended from the Ukrainian capital Kiev by Bishop Serafim, a hierarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate. "He had earlier been to Pahranichny and conducted the liturgy there and is very well liked by local people," Antonyuk declared. "But we had to tell him not to come as the consecration could not go ahead now the church has been destroyed."

The destruction of Father Spasyuk's church was ordered on 23 July by Vasili Grichenko, first deputy chairman of the Berastavitsa executive committee. "Formally the reason for the demolition is that the plans approved in 2000 did not envisage a basement, which is where Father Yan built the church," Antonyuk told Keston. "If any ordinary citizen had done this, no-one would have paid any attention." He suspected the demolition had been instigated at the request of the Belarusian Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate, the largest religious denomination in Belarus which enjoys the backing of the government.

"The Autocephalous Orthodox Church is persecuted," Pahonyailo claimed, citing the fines and police harassment of their parishes. "Not one community has been registered since Belarus gained independence. This is deliberate, as the authorities do not want to offend the Russian Orthodox Church, which has a position of dominance." (END)