BELARUS: Two U.S. Diplomats Barred from Bulldozed Church Site.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 15 October 2002

Two United States diplomats and their translator, a Belarusian citizen, have been barred from visiting the site of the Autocephalous Orthodox church bulldozed by the authorities in the village of Pahranichny on 1 August (see KNS 2 August 2002) or meeting local parishioners. The embassy third secretary, Ian Turner, a visiting colleague from the U.S. State Department and the translator, Dmitry Semyonov, were stopped on 9 October by police who claimed they were violating a restricted border zone (Pahranichny is a few kilometres/miles from Belarus' western border with Poland). Contacted by Keston News Service on 15 October, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy said it had no comment on the incident at the moment, but a statement would be issued after enquiries have been completed.

Aleksandr Antonyuk, secretary of the consistory of the Autocephalous Church who was present outside the village on 9 October, told Keston from Hrodna on 15 October that the diplomats had hoped to view the site of the bulldozed church, and meet local members of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church - including parish priest Fr Yan Spasyuk - and the head of the village administration Ivan Pisar. He reported that police stopped the diplomats' car at the entry point to the border zone, two kilometres from the village. There they checked the identity documents, then allowed the car to proceed to the village administration accompanied by two police vehicles. The diplomats spent an hour and a half in the building (though Pisar was absent) before being allowed to leave - accompanied again by police cars - and return to Minsk. They were prevented from meeting Fr Spasyuk or his parishioners.

The head of the Berestavitsa district police, Yuri Ambrazhevich, had invited the diplomats and their translator to the local police station, accusing them of violating the border zone. When they refused, the police drew up a report about Semyonov (the diplomats have immunity). Antonyuk told Keston he does not know if Semyonov will face punishment for violating the border zone. "The head of the district police examines the report and decides whether to take further action."

Antonyuk said all roads into the village had been blocked off by police, border guards and unmarked vehicles which he believed contained KGB officers. He said this all came about because the diplomats had informed Vladimir Savchenko, chairman of the Hrodna regional administration, that they intended to visit Pahranichny. "See the welcome they were given." He said that had they not informed the authorities, they could have visited the village without obstruction.

Although Fr Spasyuk is once again living in Pahranichny, he is reported to have been too ill recently to conduct services for his parishioners. (END)