BELARUS: Criminal Charges for Autocephalous Priest?

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 7 August 2002

Fears are mounting that the Autocephalous Orthodox priest whose church was bulldozed by the authorities on 1 August might face criminal charges. "I am being hunted and my car is being hunted," Father Yan Spasyuk, priest of the parish in the small town of Pahranichny close to Belarus' western border with Poland, told Keston News Service on 7 August from an undisclosed location in Belarus. "I have been forced to go into hiding." He said his parishioners have urged him not to return to the town but to try to rest somewhere in peace. "They said it would be too much of a shock for me to see the ruins. But how can I be at peace when all this is going on?" he exclaimed. He said he would return to Pahranichny to hold a liturgy next to the ruins of the newly-completed church. "It is important that evil does not win."

Father Spasyuk issued an urgent appeal for all "fair-minded people" - "whether Baptists, Jews or whoever" - to support his beleaguered parish. He particularly welcomed the support he had already had from Protestants within Belarus and the 6 August condemnation of the demolition from the United States Helsinki Commission in Washington. "The authorities can destroy stones, but they can never destroy the spirit of the people," he declared. He said his parish was preparing an appeal to Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko, but they doubted it would have much impact on him.

Other sources have reported to Keston that members of the Berastavitsa executive committee have unofficially declared that criminal charges are being prepared against the priest. Aleksandr Antonyuk, secretary of the consistory of the Autocephalous Church and legal adviser to Father Spasyuk, told Keston on 7 August that the priest's Hrodna-based lawyer Vadim Kolb had been told this at the executive committee. "The police won't confirm it," local journalist Andrej Pachobut told Keston on 7 August. "All they will say is that they are investigating whether there has been a violation of the law or not." The authorities argued that the church - which was also due to serve as Father Spasyuk's home - was built without full planning permission and that it therefore merited demolition.

Father Spasyuk reported that the authorities tried to give the church's 70-year-old watchman a 15-day prison sentence, but were unsuccessful. His own home telephone had been cut off, he said, as well as the telephone in the private home of a parishioner in Pahranichny where the parish had held Sunday school for the children. Kolb, his lawyer, was under strong pressure from the authorities.

The authorities have fined three more journalists. When demolition began on the evening of 1 August, border troops detained three reporters who had arrived to cover the events, Pachobut from the Belarus-based Polish paper Glos znad Niemna, as well as Irina Charniauka (Bielaruski chas) and Andzej Pisalnik (Dien). The border troops checked their documents, then took them to the local police station, where they spent the night. They were released at 6.15 the following morning, although not until the police chief Lt-Col. Ambrazhevich had ordered that they be fined 100,000 Belarusian roubles each (some 55 US dollars, 57 euros or 36 pounds sterling) for "having crossed a frontier zone" (Article 184 of the administrative code).

Pachobut - who had been fined 50,000 roubles on 26 July for trying to report the first demolition attempt - maintains the detention and fines on himself and his colleagues is illegal. "Although Pahranichny is close to the border and there is always a special procedure, the police violated the law - as journalists we each had accreditation allowing us to travel there." He said he would be challenging his detention in the court of Hrodna's Lenin district. He reported that the three had been treated "very properly" in the cells. "They detained us so that journalists would not see how the church was being destroyed," he told Keston.

Ilona Urbanovich-Sauka of the Belarusian Association of Journalists echoed this concern, pointing to the numerous violations of the rights of journalists in the country. "The actions against journalists in Pahranichny is part of a common pattern of disrespect for the press and of violations of our rights by officials. This is a very bad tendency."

Antonyuk reported that he had tried to visit 60-year-old Belarusian Helsinki Committee member Valery Shchukin, who had been fined on 26 July and sentenced two days later to 15 days' imprisonment. However, officers at the Berastavitsa police station refused to grant Antonyuk access.

The destruction of Father Spasyuk's church was ordered on 23 July by Vasili Grichenko, first deputy chairman of the Berastavitsa executive committee, on the grounds that he had built a cellar (where the church was located) which had not been approved in the plans (see KNS 2 August 2002). The decision was confirmed on 31 July (after demolition attempts had already begun) by the Hrodna regional executive committee.

Ivan Zakharchuk, who led the demolition operation, told journalists that his aim was to return the site "to its previous appearance". Pachobut told Keston that the destruction had been undertaken by the Hrodna-based state-run building firm Grodnopromstroi, which is headed by Baganok. He said all suitable firms in the Berastavitsa district had refused to demolish the building when they learned it was a church.

Antonyuk reported that he saw the ruins of the church on 6 August, and that some of the walls are still standing. "The church was well-built. It's not so easy to destroy it." He said soldiers were still guarding the site then. The rival Moscow Patriarchate priest in Pahranichny, Father Sergei Shelest, told Keston on 7 August that about half the walls are still standing. The two rival Orthodox churches are less than one kilometre apart. (END)