Issue 5, Articles 8-9, 8 May 2000

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



Monday 8 May 2000

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

A Baptist church without registration has been denied electricity for nearly
three years reportedly because of its unregistered status. The church - which
has been meeting in the village of Khimstroi near the industrial town of
Sumgait since 1991 - claims it has paid all its bills and that the electricity
company received orders `from above' to cut off the supply. Indications are that
the order came from the National Security Ministry (the renamed KGB). Gas
has similarly been cut off. Azerbaijan's senior religious affairs official told
Keston News Service in Baku that he was aware of the case, but denied that it
was any of his responsibility, referring all enquiries to the electricity and gas

In an interview at his home near Sumgait and in a subsequent communication,
PAVEL BYAKOV, leader of the congregations in Azerbaijan belonging to the
Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, told Keston that the
denial of electricity and gas to the church was just one instance of official
harassment of his congregations.

Electricity to the Khimstroi congregation was suddenly cut off in summer
1997, Byakov reported. The community reconnected it, but the following day
the electrician told the church that the supply had been cut on the orders of the
chief electrician. `The electrician forbade us to use electricity until we had
resolved the question higher up.' They went to the local supply office, but were
sent to the chief of the electricity supply company in the nearby town of
Sumgait. `Here they took an interest in what kind of believers we are. Having
discovered that we are not registered, they told us gently that an order had
come from above and that they could therefore do nothing. Having received
this answer we understood that the reason was not payment (we thought that
they had cut off the electricity because it was a question of the commercial
payment rate for electrical energy), but that the reason was our spiritual attitude
to the service of God.' Several months after the electricity supply was cut off,
the gas supply was cut too. `In a meeting with the management of the city gas
company, we received the same response,' Byakov added.

The congregation then addressed appeals to the city executive committee to
restore the electricity and gas supplies, informing it that old people and young
children attended the services. They sought a meeting with M. ZEINALOV, an
official dealing with such questions who is available once a week. There they
were told that they would receive a response within two weeks via the city
executive committee. However, two weeks later the city executive committee
informed the church that no response had arrived. `In this way they gave us to
understand that our question remains unresolved.'

Faced with these consistent refusals to restore the power supply, the church
was obliged to acquire its own generator. `One day an electrician arrived and
questioned us strictly as to who had given us permission to connect to the
supply. We tried to convince him that it was the generator functioning, but he
believed it only when he saw it and saw that the lights still burned when the
supply was cut off. He then admitted that officials of the National Security
Ministry had sent him to investigate everything thoroughly.'

Keston has been unable to verify Byakov's account with the electricity or gas
suppliers, but members of the Council of Churches have a strong track record
of reliability in their reporting.

Keston raised the refusal to supply power to the Khimstroi Baptist
congregation with MUSTAFA IBRAHIMOV, the temporary acting chairman
of the government's Administration for Religious Affairs. In an interview in his
office in Baku on 27 March Ibrahimov indicated that he was aware of the cut
off in the supply of electricity and gas to the congregation, but was sceptical of
claims that the church had paid its bills. `They could say they paid their bills,'
Ibrahimov told Keston. `The cut-off was two or three years ago. Maybe they
have paid now. They could say: "Here's a receipt for payment of gas or water."
They send information abroad and no-one checks whether it is true or not.
Maybe there is no basis for a complaint.' Ibrahimov denied that the question
was any of his responsibility. `If some organisation or citizen has to pay for
electricity it's not my job - it's the duty of the electricity company.' He added
though that the Khimstroi Baptist church was `self-built' and `unplanned',
hinting that it had been built without permission.

Asked in general about the status of religious communities without registration
in Azerbaijan - such as the congregations of the Council of Churches -
Ibrahimov seemed unconcerned. `All the best to them - they are our citizens.
They can register or not, just as they choose. Registration is voluntary.'

However, FAZIL MAMEDOV, the head of the department of the Justice
Ministry in Baku that registers religious organisations, takes a different view.
In a wide-ranging interview in his office on 29 March, he argued that
registration was compulsory for religious organisations and that without it they
were functioning illegally. `They must have registration to function,' he
declared categorically. `Registration is compulsory to achieve juridical status.'
Pressed on which part of the law specified that religious practice without
registration is illegal, Mamedov conceded that `there is no direct indication, but
there is indication in the law that religious groups need to have registration to
conduct activity.' Pressed again to give a specific legal reference, Mamedov
finally admitted: `There is no direct indication in the law that they must, but the
sense of the law is that religious groups can function only after registration. We
deploy the whole spectrum of the law, not just the law on freedom of
conscience and religious organisations.' Mamedov was clearly unhappy that
this law was not more specific and openly favoured a more restrictive law to
increase state oversight over religious groups. `We need to create a new law,'
he told Keston. `Religious organisations are functioning openly and covertly to
harm the interests of the state. There should be a duty to register so that the
government knows what organisations exist.' Asked about the denial of
electricity and gas to the Khimstroi Baptist church because of its unregistered
status, Mamedov declared that he had no knowledge of the case, but doubted
whether such a refusal to supply power could have happened.

The congregations of the Council of Churches refuse to register in all the post-
Soviet republics where they operate. In Azerbaijan they have suffered repeated
harassment in recent years, including raids on services, Sunday school
meetings and Baptists' homes. Two Baptists were detained for nine hours in the
local police station on 22 January in the western town of Ganja for running a
street library. One of the two men - together with a female member of the local
congregation - had been assaulted by a man in civilian clothes the previous
week. Byakov told Keston that similar incidents have happened elsewhere in
Azerbaijan with street libraries run by members of his congregations. However,
Byakov was determined to play down these events of police violence, stressing
that in general attacks and raids have been much reduced over the past year. He
viewed such official harassment as part and parcel of the Christian life and
even joked about it (he and his wife have eight children, the youngest just a few
months old, and he joked that neither the KGB nor his children allow them to
sleep at night).

The denial of electricity and gas to the Khimstroi Baptist church demonstrates
the influence the National Security Ministry has to make life difficult for
religious communities that fail to adjust themselves to the demands of the state.

Monday 8 May 2000

by David Goldman, Keston News Service

In the wake of the publication in Belarus' second largest newspaper of what
many complain was an article inspiring religious hostility against Protestants,
there are few who believe the Protestants' complaints will be heard - despite the
fact that inspiring religious hostility is a criminal offence under Belarusian law.
One Protestant leader told Keston that he had already protested against the
article, but to no avail, and he did not hold out much hope. The deputy
chairman of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs told Keston
that his office had received complaints about the article, but maintained that the
publication of articles with a range of views - including those represented in the
article - was normal in a `democratic' society.

The official publication �Narodnaya gazeta� published an extensive article on
19 and 20 April by NINA YANOVICH under the headline `The prospect
looms for Belarus to become a Protestant republic, or We are incessantly being
urged to deny the faith of our ancestors'. The paper, among whose founders is
the National Assembly of Belarus, has a print-run of 111,000 copies and is
second in importance only to the presidential publication, �Sovetskaya

It is not the first time that Yanovich has attacked religious minorities in the
newspaper. In her various articles she has levelled regular abuse throughout
1998 and 1999 at the head of the Belarus Autocephalous Orthodox Church,
Bishop PYOTR (HUSHCHA), and she has attacked other confessions which
`obstruct the complete and absolute supremacy of Orthodoxy in our country'.
Several editorial colleagues (who understandably insist on anonymity) claim
that Yanovich does not even appear to be the author of these features. `She
simply puts her signature to material that is brought on disk straight from the
State Security Council,' they report. `Everyone on the paper knows this.' The
influential State Security Council is headed by VIKTOR SHEIMAN, who is
known as the `Grey Cardinal'.

Although all Protestants combined represent the second-largest group of
registered religious organisations in Belarus, they still represent only a third of
such organisations. Of the 2,548 religious communities registered on 1 January,
1,139 are Orthodox, 405 are Catholic, and 862 are Protestant. Among the
Protestants, Pentecostals are the most numerous, with 443 communities. The
Evangelical Christians/Baptists follow with 244, then come Christians of the
Full Gospel (54), Seventh Day Adventists (48), the New Apostolic Church
(20), Christians of the Apostolic Faith (9), the Church of Christ (6) and
numerous smaller groups.

It is believed that around 50 per cent of the Belarus population are believers. Of
these, 80 per cent are Orthodox Christians. According to official figures,
Protestants constitute just 2 per cent of the country's believers (at least, those
who are members of communities registered as juridical persons). However,
one should treat these figures with extreme caution. The majority of `Orthodox'
believers are `passive believers' - they go to church less than once a year, and
do not observe fasts or festivals. On the other hand, the two per cent of
Protestants are very active and participate fully as members of their

Given this, claims that Protestants are gaining ground in Belarus have some
basis in fact. But Yanovich's article does not just establish that fact. It alleges

1. Protestant communities, in particular the Pentecostals, carry out fanatical
rituals, including the ritual use of human blood and human sacrifice. `The
Pentecostals of Yakutia have literally been torturing their children: they beat
with metal wire, scalded with boiling water, pierced with nails, tore out the hair
and in the end murdered a nine-year-old child, in order thus to enter the
Kingdom of God ([quoting Russian paper] �Komsomolskaya pravda�, 16 July

2. Protestants are the enemies of Orthodoxy, and have even allegedly
threatened `many' Orthodox priests with physical violence.

3. Protestants are implementing a political instruction, the essence of which
consists in the removal of national-religious consciousness from the Belarusian
people, and the striving towards ecumenical relations in the country: `Neo-
Protestantism in fact is aiming not so much for religious as political, economic
and military goals, right up to a level at which social opinion should change, in
order to pave the way for a warlike triumphalism. The enemies of our
Fatherland want one person to believe in one thing, another to believe in
something else, i.e. they do not want unity. It is easy to break up such a

Yanovich's conclusion is stark. `The neo-Protestant tendency takes on ugly
forms in Belarus, and carries with it a threat to the very existence of the
Belarusian nation, its psychological health, its security. In this way, the
creation of an exclusive ring has been achieved, which exerts US pressure on
Belarus on the basis of its economic, political, diplomatic, and now also
religious-ideological links. As these links strengthen (including the religious),
the ring accordingly takes on the form and presents the challenge of a noose.'

Yanovich's article also calls on the government to use restrictive and repressive
measures to `protect' Orthodoxy.

Bishop SERGEI KHOMICH, head of the Union of Christians of the
Evangelical Faith in Belarus, agrees fully with the suggestion that the article
incites religious hatred. The bishop notes sadly that recently the media have
joined in the attacks on Protestants of all denominations, whom they accuse
without foundation of destructive activity and whom they call `totalitarian
sects'. `We have written a refutation of this article and sent it to the newspaper,
but we are by no means certain that it will be published,' the bishop reported.
He also told Keston that he regularly receives telephone threats in connection
with his religious activity. Appeals to the law enforcement agencies and to the
State Committee for Religious Affairs would achieve nothing, Bishop
Khomich believes. He reports that the radio programme Razgovor po
sushchestvu (�Talking about Basics�), broadcast on Belarus state radio,
constantly criticises his denomination.

Bishop Khomich's opinion is shared not only by many Protestant ministers and
preachers, but also by representatives of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox
Churches. They confirmed privately that Yanovich's feature was `simply
disgraceful' and should not under any circumstances be left without an
appropriate public response. However, all those Keston spoke to declined to be
quoted by name or position. The most indifferent reaction to the publication
has been expressed by Jewish religious circles, who told Keston that `this did
not affect them in any way'.

Given that the feature may be almost entirely classified as a criminal act
punishable by law in accordance with Article 71 of the Criminal Code, it would
seem logical to expect the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs,
whose direct duty it is to oversee the observance of the laws on freedom of
religion and to prosecute infringements of the law in the area of the rights of
national and religious communities, independently to make an appropriate
representation to the public prosecutor. Yet, asked how the State Committee
viewed the appearance of the feature, deputy chairman IVAN YANOVICH
told Keston that it was a normal event in conditions of `democracy' and
`freedom of the press'. `Each individual expresses the point of view they think
they should express.' However, Ivan Yanovich said that a number of private
individuals and organisations had complained to the State Committee and that
these complaints `would be looked at in the appropriate manner'. END

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