Issue 3, Articles 31-32, 31 March 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.


Friday 31 March 2000

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

Human rights activists, lawyers and Protestant representatives whom Keston
recently met in Minsk are in broad agreement that Belarus�s 1992 law on
religion is a dead letter. Fear of reprisal, however, means that most were
reluctant to divulge in any detail the effects of the hotchpotch combination of
presidential decrees, unpublished �instructions� and orders by individual
officials which regulates religious life in practice.

�The law does not function because the Committee for Religious and Ethnic
Affairs and the City Executive Committee issue instructions which annul it,�
executive director of the Belarusian Interconfessional Association DAVID
GOLDMAN explained to Keston on 16 March. �Officials actually follow these
secret departmental documents � the law is there to tell the West: "Look what a
wonderful law we have".� Goldman described to Keston how heads of state
committees implemented their decisions by circulating letters to other
committee members, with each new letter taking precedence over the last.
�These violate any law, but there is no redress, as it is impossible even to obtain
these texts.�

Goldman was aware of the existence of such �instructions�, he said, from
private conversation with a member of the religion committee: �I cannot quote
him as an authority, or he would be sacked.� To illustrate how this process
worked in practice, Goldman cited Council of Ministers Decree No 280 of 23
February 1999, �On the Procedures for Inviting Foreign Religious Workers to
Belarus and Their Activity On Its Territory�, according to which foreign
religious workers may operate in Belarus for up to one year at a time. �One
internal circular letter changed this to six months, the next to three months and
a third stipulated that the religious worker had to reapply for a visa from his
country of origin.� Although Decree No 280 does not give a maximum figure
for the number of foreign religious workers that a religious organisation can
invite in any one year, chairwoman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee
TATSIANA PRATSKO mentioned to Keston on 20 March that head of the
Catholic Church in Belarus Cardinal KAZIMIERZ SWIATEK had recently
told her he was not permitted to invite more than 150 foreign religious workers
a year; this maximum figure was also given to Keston by a member of a
Protestant denomination.

If the existence of such secret �instructions� is evident only from their effects,
several recent pieces of legislation are clearly in violation of Belarus�s 1992
law on religion (amended January 1995 and November 1999). The difficulties
which these create for religious organisations without their own property �
including the majority of Protestants � are acute. According to the 1992 law on
religion, religious organisations have the right to rent state property (Article
19) or meet in private flats (Article 23). Following the deaths of 35 people on
30 May 1999, however, when crowds at a free beer festival in Minsk rushed
into a nearby metro station to shelter from a sudden storm, Belarusian president
ALEKSANDR LUKASHENKO introduced Decree No 36 �On Certain
Measures to Prevent Accidents During Mass Meetings� (9 September 1999).
This extends the current Belarusian law �On Gatherings, Mass Meetings, Street
Processions, Demonstrations and Pickets� to religious and other events �in
places not designated for them, either indoors or out�. According to Article 1
Point 2 of the Decree, such events are prohibited �in places, the use of which
for such purposes is not permitted by decisions of the corresponding local
executive and regulating organs.� In addition, according to Article 272 Part 3 of
the Civic Code and analogous Article 8 of the Housing Code - both of which
were introduced on 1 July 1999 - �the siting by the proprietor in the living
space belonging to him of premises of businesses, institutions, organisations
and their subdivisions is permitted only after it has been
converted from living accommodation.�

According to VIKTOR UKHVONOV, a lawyer and member of a �loose
international evangelical fellowship� in Minsk, many Protestant churches are
currently unable to rent premises because the administrators of the majority
state-owned buildings �are afraid to rent to churches after Decree 36.� In
addition, he told Keston on 16 March, there had been a noticeable trend
towards the end of 1999 which saw the authorities refusing to register a church
which gave its legal address as that of a flat: �The formal reason was the new
Housing Code, but in my opinion it is a particular method of controlling the
activity and growth of churches.� Ukhvonov would not give details about any
individual church but described as typical a Catch-22 situation in which the
director of a palace of culture would refuse permission for a religious meeting
without the agreement of the city administration, which would likewise refuse
permission without the agreement of the director of the palace of culture. �Who
is the initiator? There is no one to bring to book for what is clearly a violation
of the law on religion.�

One source in Minsk who wished to remain anonymous told Keston on 16
March that the new Housing Code appeared to come into force �at a time when
there was an increase in police raids on unregistered religious groups�, although
he emphasised that this should be viewed within the context of a general
climate of political crackdown in the republic. With the exception of the Full
Gospel Church (see subsequent articles), however, representatives of Protestant
churches were reluctant to give Keston specific instances of repression.

On 17 March pastor of Minsk�s Church of Christ SERGEI KONONOK told
Keston that he was not familiar with current Belarusian law governing religious
organisations. Although registered in 1992, his church did not have a
permanent place to meet, he said, and had recently split into two groups in
order to keep numbers manageable. According to Kononok, the main group
currently met in the Yanki Kupaly Literary Museum having �found an
understanding� with the curator. Previously, he said, the church had met at the
Hotel Minsk (�but the residents began to complain about our singing�), at the
National Chess and Draughts Centre (�but about two years ago they raised the
rent � and it was too big for us�) and the House of Writers, from which they
also had to move (�again, something connected with finances�). He was
reluctant to go into any further detail about the circumstances which had led the
church to move.

On 19 March member of New Life Full Gospel church TATYANA
VOLODINA told Keston that proprietors intentionally raised rent to high
levels � such as 5-600 dollars a month � so that churches could not possibly

On 17 March pastor of Minsk�s main Baptist church VIKTOR KRUTKO
confirmed to Keston that no one � including churches � took any notice of the
1992 law on religion. Although he stressed that the Baptists did not encounter
any problems from the government, he admitted that local bureaucrats resisted
the registration of congregations in some areas, but did not wish to give further
details, stating only that there were �five or seven� which had been denied
registration due to the wording of their charters, �but we know it is because
they are Baptists � the officials tell us.� One incident which Krutko did relate to
Keston � although he described it as untypical � was the noting-down by a
schoolteacher of the names of pupils present at Baptist Sunday school: �She
mocked them in front of the rest of the class in school the following day.�
Krutko refused to divulge where this had taken place: �I don�t want to harm
that local church. If the information reaches the local authorities they will
create problems for it.� (Interestingly, a Minsk representative of another
Protestant denomination with whom Keston spoke cited this same incident as
an example of problems faced by Protestants in provinces. He also said that he
had been told about police checks on Baptist congregations in rural areas.)

Emphasising the Baptists� visible successes � such as appearances on Minsk
television and the publication of a Biblical commentary in Belorussian �
Krutko explained his reticence to discuss their difficulties: �We live in a
problematic country � I call the abnormal normal. I don�t want to talk about
everyday problems � for us a real problem would be if we were in prison. Our
church is growing better and faster than any western churches even dispite
these issues � we actually like this situation because churches are growing.�

One Orthodox source in Minsk who wished to remain anonymous described to
Keston on 17 March the work of the antisectarian Venerable Iosif Igumen of
Volotsk Information Centre, which is attached to Minsk diocese. The source
told Keston that the head of the centre, recent graduate VLADIMIR
MARTINOVICH, had recently told him that he, a second paid employee and
some 30 volunteers assisted the Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs by
ascertaining whether a group had violated its own charter � and hence Article 9
of the 1992 law on religion. In the case of a violation, such as renting premises
without a written agreement, the source was told, the centre informed the
police, who intervened.

On 20 March Keston requested an interview with chairman of the Committee
for Religious and Ethnic Affairs ALEKSANDR BILYK but was told that this
would not be possible.

On 16 March David Goldman told Keston that he did not know about any
police raids on religious groups, �but that is not because such problems don�t
exist, but because people have been deprived of a mechanism to tell me about
them.� Following the introduction of a presidential decree in 1998, under which
all political and social organisations had to reregister by 1 July 1999, Goldman
explained, he had submitted the necessary documentation to reregister the
Belarusian Interconfessional Association, which was originally registered in
1993 as �a nongovernmental organisation which promotes mutual
understanding and respect between all religions, combats antisemitism, racism
and xenophobia, violations of religious freedom and other human rights
abuses.� However, he told Keston, he had heard nothing since. �When I asked
for a written refusal, the officials told me: "What refusal? Get out of here!" Any
organisation connected with human rights in any way was not reregistered, and
there were no written refusals.�

Without legal status, Goldman explained to Keston, the possibility of a five-
year prison sentence prevents him from making official enquiries into the
current situation. He described an intimidating encounter which had taken
place the same day he met Keston: �A young man who I�ve recently seen
hanging around my workplace approached me and asked me if I would
smuggle military equipment out to the West.� Goldman did not reply: �Even if I
said no, I could still be accused of holding a discussion about it.� Intimidation,
in Goldman�s view, is behind the reluctance of religious organisations to
discuss their problems: �They are terrified that the information will be used
against them. They think that the less people know the less they will be
touched. If they were in a safe place they would talk.� (END)

Friday 31 March 2000

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

�I wanted to sort this out in my own country, not send information abroad,�
president of the Full Gospel Association of Belarus and pastor of Word of Faith
congregation ALEKSANDR SAKOVICH lamented to Keston on 20 March,
�but our situation has become impossible.� Sakovich first joined an
unregistered Pentecostal church in 1972, he told Keston, � and the same things
are happening here now as then.�

In recent years the Belarusian authorities have made it increasingly difficult for
Full Gospel congregations to function. On 19 February 1999 A.
RYABITSEVA, head of the Religious and Ethnic Affairs section of Minsk
City Executive Council (MCEC), pointed out to Sakovich that at a Word of
Faith worship service on 31 January �a public sermon by a citizen of Ukraine
called "Sister Valentina"� took place in violation of Belarus�s 1992 law on
religion. In the case of similar violations in future, she warned, �MCEC has the
right to request that the judicial bodies curtail the activity of your religious
organisation.� A 26 March 1999 letter from chairman of Belarus� State
Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs ALEKSANDR BILYK similarly
threatens general director of Minsk Car Factory VALENTIN GURINOVICH,
whose palace of culture is rented by Word of Faith. �On 31 January Pastor
Sakhovich allowed a foreign citizen to preach,� Bilyk writes, �[she] made
statements which ran against Article 16 of the Constitution of Belarus [which
prohibits religious activity directed against the sovereignty and constitutional
structure of Belarus]: "We will create a new Belarus, a new government. God�s
people will work as our first ministers." MCEC has issued a written warning to
Pastor Sakovich� In connection with the above, you are asked to take these
circumstances into account when considering whether to offer the theatre hall
of your palace of culture for rental to the religious community "Word of
Faith".� So far the congregation has been able to continue the rental agreement.

The 800-strong congregation of another Full Gospel church in Minsk, New
Life, currently meets in six sections, pastor VYACHESLAV
GONCHARENKO told Keston on 19 March: �After the presidential decree on
meetings [No 36, �On Certain Measures to Prevent Accidents During Mass
Meetings�] we were refused at all palaces of culture and theatres.� Until
December 1999, he said, the church had rented the palace of culture attached to
Minsk Tractor Factory in the Partisan Region of the city, �the directors then
warned us that this would no longer be possible.�

A resolution on administrative violations of the law dated 18 February 2000
and signed by A. GURINOVICH, assistant public prosecutor of Partisan
Region, resolves that Goncharenko be prosecuted for violation of Decree 36.
As New Life community organised services for �a large number of parishioners
� up to 700�, Gurinovich notes, in a place �not specially designed for this
purpose�, permission from MCEC should have been sought for such gatherings
from the moment that Decree 36 came into force, but New Life failed to obtain

Goncharenko related to Keston how he first learned of the attempt to prosecute
him soon after Decree 36 was introduced. In late September, he said, he was
called for a four-hour interrogation by a female assistant public prosecutor and
a man who did not identify himself. According to Goncharenko, the pair
accused him of being responsible for the onset of insanity in one of his
parishioners, and pointed out that Goncharenko�s father had been sentenced for
the same reason: a member of an unregistered Pentecostal church,
Goncharenko explained to Keston, his father had been imprisoned in 1961
under Article 222 of the Belarussian SSR Criminal Code (�Infringement of the
Person and Rights of Citizens Under the Guise of Performing Religious
Rituals�). They then accused him of inciting religious hatred, Goncharenko
said, because in one of his sermons he had declared that Muslims would remain
Muslims if Mohammed were to be found not to have lived, Buddhists would
remain Buddhists if Buddha were to be found not to have lived, but Christians
would disappear if Christ were to be found not to have lived because Christian
teaching was centred upon the person of Christ: �I had to account for this.� The
pair threatened to try him in a closed court, Goncharenko told Keston, and only
then accused him of gathering without the permission of MCEC in violation of
Decree No 36. At a subsequent court hearing with a lone judge, said
Goncharenko, he and lawyer and New Life administrator VASSILI
YUREYEVICH stated that changes in the law such as the introduction of
Decree No 36 could not affect already existing agreements � including the
rental contract with the car factory � and so the case collapsed.

That agreement at an end, New Life are now obliged to seek permission from
MCEC before holding meetings, but this is being withheld. A request for
permission to hold meetings in the Partisan Cinema from 1 January 2000
onwards was denied on 27 December 1999. In a letter of that date to Pastor
Goncharenko assistant chairman of MCEC V. GURIN explains that �the rental
of cinemas for worship services is not possible as they have a different purpose
(funktsionalnoye naznacheniye).� A 4 February 2000 letter from assistant head
of the administration of MCEC in Partisan Region A. FURSOV � without
addressee but evidently directed to one or more administrators of public
buildings � declares that in accordance with Article 23 of the Belarusian law on
religion, �services, religious rites and ceremonies are conducted in prayer
houses and on the territory belonging to them, at pilgrimage sites, the
institutions of religious organisations, cemeteries, crematoria and the flats and
houses of citizens�. The letter concludes: �We therefore ask you to end rental
agreements with religious organisations. We ask you to inform the
administration of Partisan Region that these measures have been taken by 15
February 2000.�

Article 23 of the law on religion does indeed state that services may take place
in private flats. However, according to Sakovich, Full Gospel communities are
�constantly being refused registration due to the new Civic Code�, according to
Article 272 of which �the siting by the proprietor in the living space belonging
to him of premises of businesses, institutions, organisations and their
subdivisions is permitted only after it has been converted from living
accommodation.� On 30 November Sakovich wrote to the Ministry of Justice
asking whether an analogous article in the new Housing Code extended to
religious organisations. He received the following reply from M.SUKHININ at
the department for social organisations at the Ministry of Justice of Belarus on
17 December. �In accordance with Article 8 of the Housing Code and Article
272 of the Civic Code, the use of living accommodation fit for residence for
anything other than its intended purpose is not permitted.� In addition, the letter
states that according to Article 16 of the law on religion, in order to obtain
legal personality status the founders of a religious organisation must state the
location (mesto nakhozhdeniya) or legal address where the proposed
community is to conduct its activities, �by which is understood the address of a
cult building (church, prayer house, rented premises).�

Newly-formed congregations are therefore unable to register using a home
address � and those already registered under such an address must change it to
either a church building or rented premises by 1 June 2001. In practice,
according to Sakovich, the option of meeting in a church or prayer house is not
viable as none of Belarus�s 54 Full Gospel congregations has its own building:
�no one has been given permission to buy or build since President
ALEKSANDR LUKASHENKO came to power.� On 19 March Keston asked
Vassili Yureyevich whether it was the case that since Full Gospel
congregations were apparently not permitted to meet in flats and were
increasingly being denied access to rented premises, they would soon be unable
to meet legally anywhere. �Yes�, he replied. (END)

Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.