BELARUS: Minsk Protestants Warned Home Religious Services Are 'Illegal'.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 9 October 2002

Although Belarus' highly restrictive new religion law has not yet been signed by President Aleksandr Lukashenko (see separate KNS article), an official in the administration of Minsk's Zavodsky district told Keston News Service on 9 October that religious meetings held even by registered religious communities in private homes are banned under a law issued by Minsk city executive committee last year. "We have written letters to many religious organisations of a variety of confessions pointing this out," declared Korzun, who refused to give her first name. A lawyer active in religious liberty cases told Keston that a new campaign against services by registered religious communities in private homes was launched last month in the capital.

Letters passed to Keston confirm that in September local authorities warned two Protestant communities in Minsk that such unregistered religious meetings are illegal.

In a letter drafted by Korzun, Sergei Zubovich, deputy head of the administration of Zavodsky district, wrote on 20 September to A. Mikhalenkov of the Revival Baptist Church, declaring that "according to the law of the Republic of Belarus, you do not have the right to conduct your services and evangelistic meetings in a residential house".

In a similar letter of 16 September, Gennady Synkov, head of the internal affairs directorate of the administration of Minsk's Lenin district wrote to Leonid Manetsky of the Love of Jesus Church of the Full Gospel Pentecostal Church warning him that he needed permission from the local administration to be able to hold services in a private home.

Dina Shavtsova, a lawyer from the Minsk-based Imperative law firm who has been involved in religious liberty cases, told Keston from Minsk on 9 October that Alla Ryabitseva, the senior religious affairs official at Minsk city executive committee, wrote to district administrations and police offices on 19 August warning them not to allow even registered religious communities to meet in private homes, even if the religious community is registered at that address. "I saw that letter at the Lenin district police and heard about it in the city's Oktyarbrsky district also," Shavtsova reported. She said Ryabitseva had attached a list of all religious communities registered at private addresses (including Protestant and Hare Krishna communities). She believes this is what has spurred local administrations to warn religious communities.

"This is all completely illegal," Shavtsova maintains, "as in early 2000 the religious affairs committee sent round an explanatory note specifying that religious activity is allowed in private homes if residents have approval from the fire service, the sanitary service and the city architects' department. This is still in force, despite what officials claim."

She reported that in September the Hare Krishna temple in the Central District of Minsk received a warning letter and a follow-up visit from the police.

On 27 September and 1 October, leaders of two local registered Protestant churches, Andrei Frolikin of Word of Faith and Vasyl Yurevich of New Life, were summoned to the Oktyabrsky district administration. Yurevich told Keston on 9 October that officials refused to show them Ryabitseva's letter of complaint about their activity. Asked for even one case of the New Life Church's violations of the law, one official phoned the city executive committee, but failed to find out any violation. Yurevich said the summons to the executive committee followed a 22 September visit to the church by a policeman and a member of the fire service, who issued a written warning about the lack of a fire alarm at the site. "Ryabitseva simply doesn't like us Protestants," Yurevich declared. "I have to go back to the executive committee yet again tomorrow." (Yurevich was given an official warning on 2 October after holding a one-man protest against the new religion law outside parliament - see KNS 2 October 2002.)

Shavtsova reported that Ryabitseva had openly told Dmitry Zelensky, assistant to the pastor of the Full Gospel Church of Jesus Christ, in early June that even though the new religion law had not yet been adopted in parliament, it was illegal to hold religious meetings in private homes. "When the new law is adopted that will not be allowed," she quoted Ryabitseva as saying.

Keston tried to contact Ryabitseva at her office on 9 October but the telephone went unanswered.

Religious rights activists fear that such pressure not only on registered but on unregistered communities will only increase, as the new law for the first time specifically requires religious groups to register. Many believe that the arbitrary denial of registration to suitably qualified applicants means that some faiths will suffer more than others.

Artur Livshits, a lawyer to the representation in Belarus of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ) and a member of the Civic Initiative For Freedom of Conscience, recounts the difficulties the Reform Jewish community had registering in the western city of Brest. Letters seen by Keston reveal that the Brest city administration wrote to community leader Regina Simonenko on 3 April rejecting the community's registration application. "We inform you that a registered Jewish religious community (leader: Sh. O. Vainstein) is already registered in the city of Brest," deputy administration leader M. Kuish wrote. "The city executive committee considers it undesirable to consider the registration application of another Jewish community."

On 10 April, Yakov Basin, UCSJ director in Belarus, and Livshits wrote to Nikolai Gordievich pointing out that Simonenko's community consists of Reform Jews while the community led by Vainstein is made up of Orthodox Jews. They declared that given that congregations of many Christian denominations already coexist with state registration, "refusal to consider the possibility of the registration of a new Jewish community appears to be a case of discrimination against the Jewish national minority". First deputy chairman of Brest city administration, M. Yukhimuk, replied to Basin to report that on 26 April the registration application had been handed on for approval to the Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs in Minsk, which eventually granted the community registration in August.

Baptists of the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, who refuse to register on principle, have long faced punishment for conducting outdoor evangelism (see KNS 11 June 2002). In the latest reported incident, Yu. Melnik and V. Grakovich of a congregation in Minsk, were detained with other Baptists by the police in the village of Tumilovichi in Vitebsk region on 12 June. Melnik and Grakovich were charged with organising an "unsanctioned meeting" under Article 176-1 part 2 and Article 202 of the Administrative Code. They were each fined 20 times the minimum monthly wage. "On the basis of these articles," local Baptists declared in a statement of 20 August passed to Keston, "preaching the Gospel and Christian hymn singing outside a church is a violation of Belarus' laws. This is as the country's constitution guarantees in Article 31 the freedom to spread the Gospel, something guaranteed in international covenants." The Baptists called for prayers and appeals to have the laws "under which repression of believers has begun again" repealed. (END)