Thursday 16 December

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Fears are growing that the net is closing around Bishop PETRO HUSHCHA,
the leader of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church who has been
wanted for months by the KGB in Belarus. It is almost exactly a year since
Hushcha went into hiding to avoid being sent back to prison.

Sources in the Belarusian capital Minsk told Keston News Service on 15
December that Hushcha `has been put under severe threat of arrest. There is an
order from the Security Council of Belarus - which is headed by VIKTOR
SHEIMAN - to find and arrest him as soon as possible at all costs. Some of
Hushcha's friends and supporters have been caught by KGB officers and
questioned about his whereabouts and movements.'

In a desperate plea, Hushcha appeals for religious communities and human
rights groups abroad to come to his assistance.

Hushcha, who is 44, has already suffered harassment on what his supporters
say were fabricated charges. He was arrested in March 1998 for allegedly
exposing himself in front of two girls and was originally charged with gross
and lewd behaviour towards minors, but prosecutors later changed that to a
charge of `malicious hooliganism, committed with particular impudence and
cynicism'. During his imprisonment he was sent to a psychiatric hospital for a
month, where the doctors declared he was of sound mind.

He was sentenced at a closed trial in Minsk in August 1998 to three years'
imprisonment in a strict regime labour camp on charges of `malicious
hooliganism', though two months later the Supreme Court of Belarus reduced
his term to a two year conditional sentence (see KNS 5 November 1998). When
the Minsk City Court Presidium reinstated the three year sentence in December
1998, Hushcha went into hiding to avoid being sent back to prison.

Hushcha has been travelling around Belarus in recent months to evade arrest,
never sleeping in the same place twice. Those who have seen him recently
report that his health has been affected by the stress he is under. `The KGB is
constantly searching for him,' one source told Keston several weeks ago, `and
he has had a couple of close calls.'

Sources report that the authorities' anger has been directed at his work in
building up an Autocephalous (Independent) Orthodox Church in Belarus, free
of control from the local branch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Hushcha
claims that his group has some 4,000 adherents.

Both the Orthodox leadership and the state authorities vigorously oppose any
such moves to set up an independent Orthodox Church. The state has
consistently refused to register any Autocephalous Orthodox congregations.

The manhunt appears to have been intensified as the Autocephalous Orthodox
movement gathers pace. Sources in Minsk report that 64 Orthodox priests from
the Brest and Grodno regions have left the jurisdiction of the Moscow-loyal
Church over the past few months and are planning to meet to establish a formal
Autocephalous structure. `Officials are VERY angry,' sources told Keston.

In another recent case, the state authorities refused to register an Autocephalous
parish led by Father IOANN (YAN SPASYUK) in the village of Pogranichny,
also in Grodno region. Officials of the State Committee for Religious and
Ethnic Affairs in Minsk cited the group's `destructive' nature for refusing

Officials also told Keston that criminal charges for alleged financial
wrongdoing were being laid against Father Spasyuk in connection with his
earlier service as a priest of the Moscow-loyal Church, but officials declined to
specify the nature of those charges (see KNS 10 December 1999).

Father Spasyuk - who claims some 300 members of his congregation - is
defying the authorities and continuing to serve as a priest. According to a
member of his parish, contacted by telephone in Pogranichny by Keston on 15
December, Father Spasyuk is planning to go ahead with laying the cornerstone
for a church on 20 December. (Father Spasyuk himself has no telephone.)

Officials at the State Committee told Keston that there was no absolute ban on
Autocephalous Orthodox congregations gaining state registration in Belarus,
but added that no such congregations have been registered.

They added that any organised religious activity by unregistered communities -
even in private - would be punishable by fines or imprisonment. It is not yet
known if the Belarusian authorities are taking steps to prevent Father Spasyuk
from going ahead with laying the cornerstone for the new parish church.(END)

Thursday 16 December

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service

Now that the full text of the Constitutional Court's ruling on the 1997 religion
law has been in the public domain for some time, Keston News Service has
been gathering opinions on its significance. ANATOLI KRASIKOV, former
adviser to PRESIDENT YELTSIN on church-state relations, told Keston that
'the decision represented half a step forward and a full step back'. The
backward step, in his view, was that the court explicitly proclaimed one of the
law's most controversial sections, Article 27 with its 'fifteen-year rule', to be
constitutional. (Contrary to some reports, the court was not simply silent on the
question of constitutionality.)

Krasikov said he was also disturbed by the fact that the court introduced for the
first time into any official legal text terms such as 'sect' an 'psychological
pressure'. (The ruling affirmed the government's right to deny legal status to
so-called 'sects', without defining the term.) However useful these terms may
be to journalists or sociologists of religion, in Krasikov's view it is dangerous
to turn them into formal legal categories.

Krasikov also expressed concern about the decision's use of the label
'recruitment' for activities by religious bodies designed to convert unbelievers
into believers. (The Russian term 'verbovka' carries more sinister overtones
than the English 'recruitment': during the Soviet period it was the term applied
by the KGB to Russian citizens 'recruited' by anti-Soviet entities.) Another
ominous phrase, he said, was the mysterious 'et cetera' in the court's list of
unacceptable activities by religious bodies.

LEV LEVINSON, assistant to Duma deputy VALERI BORSHCHOV, told
Keston that his view of the court's decision was 'extremely negative', but also
conceded that the ruling would have some positive effects in practice. For
example, he said, local congregations would now find it easier to withdraw
from centralised church structures which they had joined only because of the
artificial pressures created by the 1997 law. In general, however, he said that
the decision was 'ignorant' in its reasoning and 'worse even than the law itself'
in its practical effects. Like Krasikov, Levinson told Keston that he was
disturbed by the 'legalisation' of terms such as 'sect'. The term 'et cetera', he
said, 'could be used to mean anything at all'.

Which organisations will be deemed to be 'sects'? Krasikov cited an
unsuccessful attempt by representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate's
Department for External Church Relations to persuade an inter-confessional
Moscow conference in late November to approve a formal list of 'sects'. The
department's head, METROPOLITAN KIRILL of Smolensk, told a press
conference that this outcome was for the best since the list was incomplete.

Russia's national Ministry of Justice, on the other hand, expressed its
satisfaction with the court's decision. ALEKSANDR KUDRYAVTSEV, head
of the Ministry's department for the registration of religious organisations, told
Keston that 'the crux of the issue lies in the fact that the 15-year requirement
applies only to those religious groups which do not belong to centralised
organisations. The application of the law as practised by the Ministry of Justice
was also vindicated by the decision of the Court - we did not demand the
enforcement of the 15-year requirement. The decision of the court went even
further by removing the retroactive effect of the law. When the law was first
passed we stated that the law should not have retroactive effect.'

Kudryavtsev told Keston that he was also pleased by another practical result:
'this ridiculous procedure of annual re-registration will now not have to take

As for terms such as 'sect' and 'psychological pressure', Kudryavtsev agreed
that 'they have a right to exist as categories in religious studies. The court,
however, should restrict itself to the use of strictly legal concepts. But given
that according to Article 15 of the Constitution the provisions of international
law are embodied in Russian domestic laws, and that these terms are used in
European laws, they do appear in the decision of the Constitutional Court.'

Lawyer ARTUR LEONTEV, who represented one of the plaintiffs in the court
case, told Keston that he disagrees with Kudryavtsev's view that these
documents of the European parliament are binding in the Russian Federation:
he said that these are advisory recommendations, not mandatory. In Leontiev's
opinion the court's decision 'was made on the grounds of politics rather then

On the other hand the decision was welcomed by another attorney for the
plaintiffs, ANATOLI PCHELINTSEV of the Slavic Centre for Law and
Justice, who called it 'a substantial victory'. (END)

All Keston News Service material is protected by copyright:
(c) Keston Institute 1999