BELARUS: Are Autocephalous Orthodox Threatened with Job Loss?

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 16 September 2002

In the wake of the destruction on 1 August of the country's first purpose-built Autocephalous Orthodox church by the authorities in the small town of Pahranichny close to Belarus' western border with Poland (see KNS 7 August 2002), leading members of the parish have been summoned and threatened not to support their priest, Father Yan Spasyuk, a leading member of the Church has told Keston News Service. Aleksandr Antonyuk, secretary of the consistory of the Autocephalous Church and legal adviser to Father Spasyuk, told Keston from Hrodna on 13 September that five or six of the most active parishioners were summoned to the local administration in nearby Berastavitsa and threatened that their relatives would lose their jobs if they themselves did not abandon their support for Father Spasyuk. Local officials have categorically denied this to Keston News Service.

"This is the first time I have heard of this," Vasili Grichenko, first deputy chairman of the Berastavitsa executive committee, told Keston by telephone on 16 September. "No-one is being threatened." Asked why Church members have reported such threats, Grichenko then declared that he only had responsibility for agriculture and that the local official of the government's Council for Religious Affairs, Pyotr Dudko, handled such issues. Asked why he, Grichenko, had therefore signed the 23 July letter ordering the demolition of the Autocephalous Orthodox church, he responded: "I was representing the chairman of the executive committee, Ivan Zakharchuk, who was on holiday. Anyway, that was a communal decision by the whole executive committee."

Reached by telephone the same day, Dudko too denied that any of Father Spasyuk's parishioners had been threatened. "Where did you get such information from?" he declared. "This didn't happen. This is a fabrication." Asked why members of Father Spasyuk's community should have claimed to have been summoned, Dudko responded: "There isn't such a community. It doesn't exist." He then claimed that he had been on holiday for the previous month, so no-one could have been summoned. Asked whether there was any threat to the work places of Father Spasyuk's supporters or their relatives, he declared: "I can tell you officially that there is no threat to their work places."

Reached again on 16 September, Antonyuk insisted that Father Spasyuk's leading parishioners had been summoned and threatened. "Of course officials are going to deny it. They're not afraid of anyone." He reported that those summoned had mostly been in their fifties or sixties and were pensioners, but that those who had children or close relatives working in the Berastavitsa district were worried. "Officials' sway does not reach as far as Minsk, but anyone working locally is threatened," Antonyuk declared.

One of Father Spasyuk's parishioners, reached on 16 September in the village, told Keston tearfully that there have been threats from the executive committee. "We stood around the church, but they destroyed it. No-one listened to us. We prayed so much." She said Father Spasyuk's parish was supported by more than a hundred villagers. "I'm a pensioner - I'm not afraid. But many are." The parishioner said that the parish can no longer meet for worship and is without a priest in Father Spasyuk's absence.

Antonyuk reported that Father Spasyuk is now in hiding, fearing arrest. "If he appears again in Pahranichny he will certainly be arrested." However, Dudko denied this. "I don't know why he's afraid of being arrested," he told Keston.

Antonyuk also claimed that the local parish priest of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, Father Sergei Shelest, had declared in a sermon at his Pahranichny church on 7 September that the Moscow Patriarchate would build a new church on the site where the Autocephalous Church had stood until its demolition.

Both Dudko and Grichenko at the executive committee denied that the Moscow Patriarchate was preparing to build a new church. "I have no information about any such plans," Grichenko declared. Dudko went even further. "I wasn't in the church, so didn't hear the sermon. But I can tell you officially that they are not planning to build a new church. This is a fabrication."

Keston tried to reach Father Shelest by telephone on 16 September, but his wife said he would not be in all day. She admitted that there are plans to build a new Moscow Patriarchate church in the village, but declined to say whether this would be on the site of the demolished church. "I don't know where it will be." (END)