Friday 10 December

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

A community of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (BAOC) in
the village of Pogranichny in Berestovitsa district in the west of Belarus has
been denied registration after state officials termed the group `destructive'. An
official of the State Committee for Religious Affairs and Ethnic Minorities told
Keston News Service from Minsk on 8 December that the expert council
attached to the Committee had studied the registration documents submitted by
the community and `did not support the application for registration'. VASILI
BERNYAKOVICH, who heads the department of religious affairs within the
Committee, told Keston that the expert council's decision had been passed to
the executive committee of the Grodno region, the local authority that takes the
final decision on registration.

The Pogranichny Autocephalous Orthodox parish is led by Father IOANN
(YAN SPASYUK), a former priest of the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian
Orthodox Church. He began a hunger strike on 7 November to protest against
police harassment of his congregation (see KNS 24 November 1999). The
Belapan news agency reported that he stopped his hunger strike on 28
November, yielding to urgent requests on the part of his family, his
parishioners and the BAOC leaders. He also said that it would be a sin to
continue his protest during the Orthodox fasting period. However, Spasyuk
seems set to continue his campaign. `The priest plans to file lawsuits against
the local authorities for the refusal to register his parish and against the local
branch of the Moscow-run Belarusian Orthodox Exarchate for harassing him,'
the Belapan report declared, adding that despite this Spasyuk hoped all the
conflicts would soon be over. `My parishioners want only one thing, they want
peace,' Spasyuk was quoted as saying.

The agency also reported that he planned to lay the cornerstone of a church for
the community on 20 December.

Bernyakovich told Keston that there were two main reasons why the
registration application was refused. `Firstly, the activity of the Autocephalous
Church is of an artificial nature and is sponsored by YURI RYZHY-RIZHSKY
[an Autocephalous leader] from New York deliberately to foment conflict with
the Catholics and the Orthodox. Secondly, the activity of the Belarusian
Autocephalous Orthodox Church is in and of itself of a destructive nature and
is against Orthodoxy and Catholicism. We do not want such activity here.'

Asked why the State Committee was not considering simply the ten parish
members who signed the registration application (as required by law) and why
it was concerned about Ryzhy-Rizhsky in New York, Bernyakovich responded:
`It is not a question of the ten people, but of the people who are supporting
them. Spasyuk has been in contact with Ryzhy-Rizhsky. Look at [the Japanese
cult] Aum Shinrikyo, which was itself banned in its time. We have to look at
these things carefully.'

Bernyakovich was keen to point out that Spasyuk was under criminal
investigation after a case had been opened against him. However, he stressed:
`This is a question for the procuracy - it is not our business.' He said he did not
know what article of the criminal code Spasyuk was being investigated under.

Bernyakovich rejected suggestions that the ban on the registration of the
Pogranichny Autocephalous congregation was discriminatory. `Look, we have
2,500 registered religious organisations here of 26 different denominations, 15
of which have republic-wide status. Even the Krishnaites function here
normally.' He denied vehemently that pressure from the Belarusian Exarchate
of the Russian Orthodox Church had influenced the rejection. `There has been
no pressure from the Orthodox Church. The expert council took the decision. It
is made up of academic specialists. Many of them are not believers, though we
do not ask them their faith.'

Bernyakovich could not recall the date when the expert council made the
decision, though he believed it was at the end of November. He refused to
make available to Keston the written decision of the expert council. `We don't
give out such documents,' he said, although he denied that the document was
secret. Bernyakovich said that any enquiries about the Grodno executive
committee's decision should be addressed to MIKHAIL KANTAROVICH in
Grodno, but declined to give a telephone number for him.

Asked what would happen to the Autocephalous parish in Pogranichny now
that the registration application had been refused, Bernyakovich declared: `We
have legislation under which if they continue to function they will be
punished.' He affirmed that even if they conducted services and prayer
meetings in private without registration they would be subject to punishment.
Asked how this tallied with Belarus' international human rights obligations,
Bernyakovich claimed that such legislation was there to protect the rights of
others. He rejected suggestions that this infringed the rights of the believers

Asked whether there was a blanket ban on any Autocephalous Orthodox
community ever being allowed to register in Belarus, Bernyakovich responded:
`I am not prepared to say so. There are no applications from any Autocephalous
congregations at the moment. We will consider any applications as they come.'

Spasyuk's church reportedly claims to have about 300 members and a Sunday
school and has been awaiting registration since 1998. It apparently made its
most recent application in early November of this year.

In protest at the police harassment and refusal to register the congregation,
Spasyuk addressed an appeal to the Istanbul summit of the OSCE (which met
17-19 November) asking for participants' support for his Church. He
complained that the refusal to register the congregation violated the Belarusian
constitution and the law on freedom of religious confession. The appeal, signed
by Spasyuk in Minsk on 15 November, was passed to Keston by the OSCE's
Advisory and Monitoring Group in Belarus.

In a telephone interview with Keston about the Pogranichny parish on 23
November, IVAN YANOVICH, the deputy chairman of the State Committee
for Religious Affairs and Ethnic Minorities, declared: `The community has the
ten people they need to apply for registration and, if their statute does not
contradict the law, they will receive registration.' However, it appears that there
is more to gaining official registration in Belarus than simply having the
correct documentation. Subjective factors clearly play an overriding part.

Keston has been unable to reach Spasyuk or his community for comment.

Friday 10 December

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Local authorities in the town of Urgench in southwestern Uzbekistan
have given the local Baptist church `a couple of days' to correct what
they say are inadequacies in its registration application and resubmit
the paperwork. However, the Department of Justice in Urgench declined
to discuss the case in any detail with Keston News Service.

Contacted by telephone in Urgench on 10 December, ZAFAR
KHUDAIBERGENOV, the head of the local Department of Justice, told
Keston his office had written to the Baptist church specifying the
`inadequacies' in the application and giving it a couple of days to
resubmit the application. `This is all we are going to say,'
Khudaibergenov declared. `We are not prepared to discuss this
further,' he added, before putting the phone down.

Keston also spoke on 10 December by telephone to BEKHZOT KADYROV, a
`chief specialist' of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs
in Tashkent. He told Keston that he had been in contact with
Khudaibergenov about the Baptists' registration application four days
earlier and had learnt that the Baptists had not obtained the
signature on the application from the khokimat (local authorities).
Kadyrov declared that he did not know why the khokimat had failed to
sign the application. `Without the signature from the khokimat the
application cannot be processed,' he told Keston, `and the Department
of Justice in Urgench cannot take a decision on registration.'

Asked what the Baptist community should do about this, he insisted
that the church's pastor, OLEG VADER, should go to the Urgench
Department of Justice and telephone him from there, so that the local
Department of Justice officials and the pastor could discuss the
matter with the Committee for Religious Affairs in Tashkent at the
same time in a bid to resolve the dispute.

The Baptist Union of Central Asia told Keston on 7 December from
Tashkent about the Urgench Department of Justice's refusal to process
the registration application (see KNS 8 December 1999), laying the
blame for the refusal squarely on the Urgench Department of Justice.
The Baptist Union reported that the church had submitted its
application back in September, but that the Department of Justice had
in particular cited what it said was the unacceptable nature of the
premises where the church holds its services. The Baptist Union had
also claimed that the Urgench church had obtained all the necessary
signatures from the various government bodies required to submit a
registration application.

`The Urgench case confirms yet again that in Uzbekistan the question
of church registrations remains as before in the sphere of politics,'
the Baptist Union had concluded. `It is practically impossible to
achieve registration by normal means, even when all the documents are

Another Christian church that has been obstructed in gaining
registration by the local authorities is the Full Gospel congregation
in the town of Nukus, the capital of the Karakalpakstan autonomous
republic. The church - which is pastored by RASHID TURIBAYEV, who was
released from prison in August after a presidential pardon - filed its
registration application with the Karakalpakstan Ministry of Justice
in Nukus in early October, but the local Mahalla (district) Committee
refused to sign the application. Although the church has asked the
Mahalla Committee to issue a statement spelling out why they will not
sign the application, the committee has so far refused.

Kadyrov of the Committee for Religious Affairs confirmed that the
Mahalla Committee had declined to sign the registration application.
He told Keston that he had spoken to the Karakalpakstan Ministry of
Justice about the case the previous week. `The Mahalla Committee does
not want the church to exist,' he reported. Asked what action the
church could now take to resolve the problems and gain registration,
Kadyrov reported: `I have already told the Full Gospel Church that
they should send a leader from Tashkent who should go together with
Pastor Turibayev to the Karakalpakstan Ministry of Justice to resolve
the matter.'

Although Kadyrov insisted that the obstructions placed in the way of
the Urgench Baptist Church and the Nukus Full Gospel Church should be
resolved by dialogue between local officials, church leaders and his
Committee in Tashkent, it is unclear whether the Committee has the
authority to force obstructive local authorities to register religious
communities if they do not want to.

The Baptist Union itself was registered as a centralised religious
organisation in September and the Full Gospel Church obtained the same
status in early November. Both had been consistently refused such
status since new, more restrictive legislation on religion was enacted
in May 1998. However, neither group has been able to obtain
registration for all their congregations, despite a number of
registrations in the wake of the Uzbek government's volte-face on
religious minorities in August. (END)