KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 11.00, 3 May 2001

BELARUS: CHRISTIAN PAPER EDITOR AND DISTRIBUTORS DUE
IN COURT. A subscription drive by an interdenominational Protestant
newspaper, Slovo, on the streets of the Belarusian capital Minsk has left
more than twenty people facing charges. The official responsible for
religious affairs in Minsk told Keston News Service that leaflets distributed
along with the paper caused the problem, because they were �issued by a
religious organisation [Jews for Jesus] that is not registered and its activity is
therefore banned�. When asked why copies of Slovo were confiscated and
why the editor is facing court proceedings, however, she put the phone
down.

BELARUS: CHRISTIAN PAPER EDITOR AND DISTRIBUTORS DUE
IN COURT

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

A subscription drive by an interdenominational Protestant newspaper on the
streets of the Belarusian capital Minsk has left more than twenty people,
including the newspaper's editor, facing charges under the administrative
code. Aleksandr Velichko, editor of Slovo (Word), told Keston News
Service that the moves against his paper come despite the fact that it is
registered with the State Committee for the Press. However, Alla
Ryabitseva, head of Minsk executive committee's department for religious
and ethnic affairs, denied that the newspaper was the target of any
restrictions. She told Keston on 2 May that leaflets issued by Jews for Jesus
as a supplement to the paper and handed out at the same time as part of an
evangelistic campaign were the cause of the problems. `They can distribute
the paper, but the leaflets were issued by a religious organisation that is not
registered and its activity is therefore banned,' she declared. `Let them
register and then they can conduct propaganda.' However, she put the phone
down when asked why copies of Slovo were confiscated and why the editor
is facing court proceedings.

The promotional campaign for Slovo was associated with the `Jews for
Jesus' mission, held in Minsk from 18 April to 5 May as part of an
international campaign. The local branch of the organisation Jews for Jesus
applied for registration with the government's State Committee for Religious
and Ethnic Affairs on 20 April, but Pastor Nikolai Khaskin of the Zion-
Jerusalem Messianic congregation in Minsk was issued a written rejection
the following day, signed by the state committee's deputy head, Ivan
Yanovich. `They didn't even consider our documents,' an official of the
organisation told Keston on 2 May. The organisation again applied for
registration on 26 April, but has so far had no response.

Ryabitseva insisted to Keston that under the law, all activity by religious
groups without registration is illegal. She rejected suggestions that this
violated Belarus' international human rights commitments to freedom of
speech and belief.

Police action appears to have been directed as much at Slovo as at the Jews
for Jesus leaflets. `People gave out the paper at exits to metro stations and on
the streets,' Velichko told Keston by telephone from Minsk on 2 May.
`However, the police stopped the distribution and confiscated stocks of the
paper, personal property and property of the paper. Further distribution was
banned.' He added that some of those detained were held at local police
stations for up to four hours.

Velichko has been accused under Article 193 of the administrative code, that
punishes `founding and leading an underground religious organisation' with
a fine of up to five times the minimum monthly wage. He told Keston that he
expects the case to be heard on or soon after 20 May in Minsk's Pervomaisky
district court. `Alla Ryabitseva told us that advertising the paper constituted
a religious action, that's why the case has been brought.'

In addition, more than 20 volunteers who had distributed the paper and the
leaflets on the streets of the capital are facing charges under Article 172 part
3 of the administrative code, which lays down fines of up to three times the
minimum monthly wage for `distributing a paper without registration'.
Velichko describes the accusation as `absurd', given that Slovo was
registered with the State Committee for the Press on 2 March 2000 under
certificate number 1457. It is not clear when these cases will come to court.

Slovo, a monthly with a print-run of 10,000 copies, has encountered
problems in the past, being closed down briefly in 1996 and 1998. It was
able to register last year `not without difficulty', Velichko reported, though it
was forced to do so as a social/political and religious publication.
`According to a presidential decree, only registered headquarters of religious
organisations are allowed to register a religious publication, and even then
they can only put out one publication each. Our paper is of purely religious
content, that's why we have many problems.'

Velichko added that when Slovo held a conference in Minsk in January
devoted to state restrictions on religious groups, he was warned by the
department for the supervision of the press of the republic's procuracy that
holding such meetings constituted `conducting non-approved activity'. `The
round table was attended by Protestants of various groups, a Catholic, the
Helsinki Committee, the state-run Skaryna Centre and more than 60 secular
journalists and had a great impact as we spoke just about facts and presented
documents,' Velichko told Keston. `I was told this represented political, not
reporting activity.'

Keston was unable to reach Stanislav Novikov, head of the department for
the supervision of the press, to ask why Slovo had been warned not to hold
such meetings. (END)

Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.