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F18News: Belarus - Religious freedom survey, January 2013

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  • F18News: Belarus - Religious freedom survey, January 2013

    FORUM 18 NEWS SERVICE, Oslo, Norway

    The right to believe, to worship and witness
    The right to change one's belief or religion
    The right to join together and express one's belief

    Wednesday 30 January 2013

    Belarus continues to keep religious communities within an invisible ghetto
    of regulation, Forum 18 News Service has found. The state closely controls
    people meeting together to exercise their religious freedom, forcing many
    religious communities to keep out of sight. Officials are hostile towards
    followers of faiths they see as a threat, particularly the Protestantism of
    many of the regime's political opponents. However, Forum 18 also notes that
    Belarus has been more reluctant to crack down on freedom of religion and
    belief in recent years, for fear that this might increase political
    opposition. Other issues include: strict controls on foreign citizens,
    including Catholic priests, who conduct religious activity; a Soviet-era
    network of KGB secret police and religious affairs officials; lack of
    provision for conscientious objection to military service; and obstruction
    of the religious freedom of prisoners, including prisoners of conscience
    and death-row prisoners.


    By Geraldine Fagan, Forum 18 News Service

    Belarus continues to keep religious communities within an invisible ghetto
    of regulation, Forum 18 News Service has found. People meeting together to
    exercise their religious freedom are subject to close state control.
    Officials are hostile towards followers of faiths they see as a political
    threat, particularly Protestantism. Forum 18 observes, however, that in
    recent years the regime has been less inclined to obstruct people
    exercising their religious freedom.


    The recent rarity of dramatic conflict between Belarusian officials and
    believers - such as arrests of religious leaders - may suggest an absence
    of restriction. In fact, the state continues to keep religious communities
    contained within an invisible ghetto of regulation. As one young
    Pentecostal commented to Forum 18 in the capital, Minsk, in late 2010: "If
    we have to get permission to hold a service in our own church, this cannot
    be evidence of religious freedom."

    Central to the government's web of restrictions is the 2002 Religion Law.
    The most repressive such law in Europe, its restrictions include compulsory
    state registration of all religious communities and geographical limits
    upon where religious activity may take place. Religious gatherings in
    private homes must not be either regular or large scale. Houses of worship
    are designated by the state. All public exercise of freedom of religion or
    belief must have state permission. For disfavoured religious communities -
    usually Protestant - such regulations combine to make nothing possible, as
    they find state permission unobtainable in practice.

    Yet Belarus has become more reluctant to target the exercise of freedom of
    religion or belief in recent years. The regime is apparently concerned that
    this might push the mass of believers who are still politically neutral
    into opposition. Since coming to power in 1994, President Aleksandr
    Lukashenko has crushed independent political, business, media and social
    organisations. In turn, faith-based political opposition to his regime by
    Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians has grown (see below).

    Lukashenko apparently fears the potential of the largest remaining
    independent organisations - churches - and is unlikely to act against them
    while his own position is less than secure. His hardest strikes at freedom
    of religion or belief have been the adoption of the 2002 Religion Law and a
    crackdown in 2006-7. These took place when the regime felt most confident,
    after disputed elections that returned Lukashenko to the presidency in
    September 2001 and March 2006.

    Minsk battleground

    The state of religious freedom continues to be encapsulated by the
    situation of New Life Church, a 1,000-strong charismatic Pentecostal
    congregation in Minsk.

    New Life is famous for its fight since 2002 to keep control of its private
    church property. This is a renovated cow barn on the edge of the city,
    which the authorities claim cannot have its use changed into a church.
    Worship by a Belarusian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) parish in a
    converted railway carriage 500 metres (yards) away has not faced similar

    Minsk officials - backed by the national government - have blocked New
    Life's every effort to use its building in line with Belarusian law,
    thereby stripping the church's rights to the property. A hunger strike by
    New Life members, visits by foreign diplomats, and messages of support from
    around the world deterred the state from seizing the building in October

    Formally, New Life has not owned its land since 2005, nor its building
    since 2009. Yet the authorities have largely left the church alone since
    mid-2009. They took no action after New Life refused to pay a heavy
    February 2010 fine for alleged oil pollution; the church categorically
    rejects this charge.

    Visiting in late December 2010, Forum 18 found members able to organise
    Christmas festivities with the aid of portable generators (the authorities
    cut off the church's electricity in 2004). New Life's high-profile civil
    disobedience campaign appeared to push the authorities back from
    confrontation. A local Pentecostal pastor has characterised the church to
    Forum 18 as "the only territory in the country where Belarusian laws don't

    On 27 November 2012, however, New Life received a fresh eviction order amid
    a wider crackdown against political opposition: following the mid-November
    appointment of new KGB secret police chief Valery Vakulchyk, prominent
    human rights organisation Vesna (Spring) was evicted from its Minsk
    premises on 26 November. Yet the authorities once again stepped back from
    conflict with the congregation; within days, the local district authority
    cancelled its eviction order.

    Political opposition activism

    Belarusian Christians, including Protestants, have little historical record
    of confrontation with the state. But as religious freedom restrictions
    reduce their ability to act on their beliefs in public, opposition to
    Lukashenko's regime is growing within many churches. Uniquely in the former
    USSR, some Christians have adopted tactics of organised resistance in their
    pursuit of freedom of religion or belief that are more usually associated
    with secular political activism. In 2007, for example, Catholics, Orthodox
    and Protestants gathered 50,000 signatures in a petition calling for the
    Religion Law to be changed to comply with international human rights
    standards. Mainstream political activists are in turn drawing upon
    religious ideas, and a number of key opposition figures are committed

    The regime continues to target churches and individual Christians
    associated with opposition activism:

    In February 2012 riot police raided a meeting to discuss historical and
    cultural issues held at the Minsk home of Pentecostal Pastor Antoni Bokun,
    whose congregation includes several prominent Christian opposition
    political activists.

    In December 2011 Fr Vyacheslav Barok, a Catholic parish priest in Vitebsk
    [Vitsyebsk] Region, was investigated on suspicion of evading tax on
    earnings from pilgrimages he helped organise to religious sites in Belarus,
    other European countries and Israel - allegations which he strongly denies.
    Fr Vyacheslav's brother Yuri Barok, also a Catholic priest, participated in
    the revival of the Belarusian Christian Democracy movement. Although not
    wishing to leave Belarus, he was transferred by his bishop to Israel in

    In September 2010 "Forbidden Christ", a film documenting Soviet persecution
    of Protestant churches in Belarus, was removed from a Catholic film
    festival in Vitebsk Region by order of the country's top religious affairs
    official, Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs Leonid Gulyako.
    The film's director, Aleksei Shein, is a leader of the opposition
    Belarusian Christian Democracy Party.

    In January 2010 organisers were forced to cancel a concert at Minsk's SS
    Simeon and Helen Catholic Church after the city authorities threatened
    "problems" if it went ahead. The concert was to launch a CD compilation of
    contemporary Christian music, including by members of the Belarusian
    Christian Democracy Party.

    Political prisoners

    In violation of both Belarusian and international law, prisoners of
    conscience whose motivation for political opposition is their Christian
    faith have been denied pastoral visits, communal worship and religious
    literature while in detention. Ordinary prisoners may be similarly denied
    freedom of religion or belief (see below).

    Andrzej Poczobut, a journalist charged with libelling President Lukashenko,
    was denied access to a Catholic priest while detained in Grodno [Hrodna]
    for three months in 2011.

    Numerous Christian opposition activists were arrested in connection with a
    major demonstration on the night of President Lukashenko's most recent
    re-election, 19 December 2010. These included:

    Pavel Severinets, charged for his political activities as a leader of the
    Belarusian Christian Democracy Party. He was denied a meeting with an
    Orthodox priest for almost five months while in the KGB secret police
    detention centre in Minsk in early 2011.

    Oleg Korban, a leader of the opposition Young Democrats' Movement, who was
    detained with Severinets until 7 January 2011. He was similarly denied
    access to an Orthodox priest.

    Severinets was also not allowed to receive a Bible passed from his mother.
    Detained in the same KGB detention centre for two months, Anastasiya
    Polozhanko, a Protestant and leader of the Belarusian Youth Front, was not
    allowed to keep a Bible she was carrying when arrested. Both she and
    Severinets had to order Bibles from the prison; these were available only
    in Russian.

    Belarusian Christian Democracy Party presidential candidate Vitaly
    Rymashevsky, held at the same KGB detention centre for two weeks after the
    December 2010 election, was denied access to religious literature,
    including the Bible.

    Orthodox atheism

    According to official statistics presented by top state religious affairs
    official Gulyako in early 2012, nearly two-thirds of Belarusian citizens
    are Orthodox Christians, while just 12 per cent are Catholic. Gulyako did
    not give statistics for other beliefs. Such polling is rare, but a 2000
    Belarusian sociological survey found approximately six per cent adhering to
    other faiths, the majority likely to be Protestant.

    A total of 3,210 local communities had state registration in early 2012. Of
    these, 1,567 were Orthodox as well as 33 Old Believer, 972 were Protestant,
    494 were Catholic, 53 were Jewish, 27 were Jehovah's Witness, 23 were
    Muslim, and 41 were from a variety of other faiths of which 6 were Hare
    Krishna and 5 were Baha'i.

    In view of the nominal Orthodox majority, government representatives
    sometimes use pro-Orthodox rhetoric common in neighbouring Russia. In 2010
    Gulyako maintained, for example, that "the role of traditional confessions
    is continuing to grow in Belarus" when announcing the introduction into
    state schools that September of an optional course on Orthodox Culture,
    pioneered in Russia.

    Despite many cultural similarities between the two nations, however, Forum
    18 has found Belarus to be far less inclined than Russia to enact religious
    policy favouring the Belarusian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). No
    individuals or communities of other confessions have complained to Forum 18
    that co-operation between the state and the Orthodox Church has led to
    religious freedom violations in state institutions.

    The Soviet atheist legacy is also far stronger in Belarus, as indicated by
    its retention of government religious affairs structures (see below) and
    broad popular identification with atheism, typified by Lukashenko's
    notorious self-definition as an "Orthodox atheist".

    The Belarusian state's lean towards atheism comes despite a significantly
    higher level of popular religious observance than in Russia. Polled in
    2006, around 25 per cent of Belarusians said they attend church at least
    once a month; the equivalent Russian figure was only 11 per cent.

    Close to their Russian counterparts, however, is Belarusian officials'
    characteristic hostility towards faiths they consider a threat,
    particularly Protestantism. Accounting for an October 2009 police visit to
    the Minsk home of a Protestant family, for example, a deputy police chief
    remarked to Forum 18: "We have Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims - these are
    the religions. All the others are sects."

    Jehovah's Witnesses have reported state obstruction to their exercise of
    freedom of religion or belief in recent years almost unknown before 2009
    (see below).

    Controls on foreigners

    In line with this hostility, Belarus strictly controls foreign citizens who
    conduct religious activity. According to a 1999 decree, foreigners may work
    only within houses of worship belonging to, or premises continually rented
    by, the religious organisation that invited them. This must be a
    state-registered religious association consisting of 10 or more
    communities, at least one of which must have functioned in Belarus for 20
    years. The transfer of a foreign religious worker from one religious
    organisation to another - such as between parishes of the same denomination
    - requires permission from a state official dealing with religious affairs,
    even to conduct a single worship service.

    Under a 2008 decree, Belarus' top religious affairs official,
    Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs Gulyako, has sole
    discretion in deciding whether religious work by a foreign citizen is
    "necessary". He may refuse a foreign religious worker's visit without
    giving any reason. Foreign citizens must also demonstrate knowledge of
    Belarus' state languages (Belarusian and Russian) in order to perform
    religious work.

    In May 2009 religious affairs officials warned New Testament Pentecostal
    Church in Minsk it could be closed down after Ukrainian citizen Pastor
    Boris Grisenko, visiting from his Messianic Jewish congregation in the
    Ukrainian capital Kiev, preached at an evening service. Grisenko was fined
    105,000 Belarusian Roubles (then 230 Norwegian Kroner, 30 Euros or 40 US
    Dollars) for religious activity without state permission (Code of
    Administrative Offences, Article 23.55, Part 1, Point 1).

    More than two-thirds of the 33 foreign citizens known to have been barred
    from conducting religious work in Belarus since 2004 are Catholic (most of
    the rest are Protestant). Priests and nuns tackling social issues, such as
    alcoholism, very publicly appear to be particular targets.

    Fear of expulsion is acute for the Catholic Church in Belarus, about 40 per
    cent of whose approximately 430 priests are foreign citizens. Between the
    end of 2006 and the end of 2008, 12 Polish Catholic priests and eight nuns
    were forced to leave the country. Far fewer cases were reported before
    2006, and the number again fell from June 2009 to January 2013. In late
    2009 two village priests from Poland, Fr Jan Bonkowski and Fr Edward Smaga,
    were refused state permission to continue religious work in Belarus; Fr
    Bonkowski had been with his parish for 20 years.

    Subsequent softer treatment of the Catholic Church appears due to growing
    state recognition of Catholic influence among the Belarusian population.
    According to religious affairs official Gulyako's 2012 statistics, a
    quarter of a million Catholics attended Christmas services in 2011, only
    14,000 fewer than Orthodox.

    Lukashenko appears keen to keep the Catholic Church at least neutral
    towards his regime. In April 2009 he and his young son Kolya delivered an
    open invitation to Pope Benedict XVI to visit Belarus. In July 2009 Gulyako
    announced that his office and the Foreign Ministry had completed the draft
    of a Concordat with the Holy See; he repeated this in November 2011,
    stressing that the Holy See's response was awaited.

    The same month Lukashenko declared: "We expect more of the Catholic Church
    and Pope Benedict XVI in defending our interests, especially in the West."

    The Holy See has yet to approve either a papal visit or the Concordat, but
    Catholic representatives have also declined to criticise the Lukashenko
    regime. On the contrary, the Holy See's Secretary of State [=Foreign
    Minister], Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, conveyed the thanks of Pope Benedict
    XVI "for the religious liberty that Belarus enjoys" during a June 2008
    visit to Minsk. During the same visit, Bertone also told a press conference
    that the repressive Religion Law was "a good law reflecting the necessary
    protection and respect for the rights of the five main confessions
    traditional to Belarus".

    Despite such Catholic Church concessions, it is unlikely that a Concordat
    would halt Belarus' continuing violations of the right to freedom of
    religion or belief - both against Catholics and others.

    Soviet nostalgia

    Belarus retains a Soviet-era network of religious affairs officials charged
    with the close monitoring of religious communities. In addition to the
    Minsk office of the most senior, Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic
    Affairs Gulyako, each of the country's six regions plus Minsk city employs
    one or two religious affairs officials, with further officials dealing with
    religious affairs in every district (approximately 20 per region). Local
    Ideology Departments were revived in 2003; their officials are frequently
    instrumental in moves to restrict freedom of religion or belief.

    The KGB secret police are also often involved. Pointedly retaining its
    Soviet title, the Belarusian KGB has made no attempt to distance itself
    from its recent past, instead proudly tracing its history back to the first
    Soviet secret police, the Cheka. According to the official KGB website, in
    the 1920s the Cheka fought transport disruption, a typhoid epidemic, and to
    save starving orphans. The website also suggests that the secret police
    suffered rather than performed Stalin's purges in the 1930s, with about
    20,000 officials as victims.

    Defence of this record has led the KGB to discourage commemoration of
    Christians killed for their faith in Soviet times. KGB officers tried to
    have icons of them removed from Grodno's Orthodox cathedral in 2006, and
    continue to monitor visitors to mass graves of Stalinist repression victims
    at Kuropaty (Kurapaty) outside Minsk. An Orthodox chapel planned for the
    site has never been built.

    Worship meeting restrictions

    Under the Religion Law, religious activity can only take place
    "unobstructed" in state-approved houses of worship (Article 25). Yet the
    state obstructs acquisition of such houses of worship by disfavoured
    religious communities, as the case of New Life Church illustrates.
    Officials then use various legal tools to limit such communities.

    Restrictions begin from the moment a community forms. Under the Religion
    Law, all religious organisations must be registered with the state (Article
    14). The Law is silent on those with fewer than 20 members - the minimum
    for registration. This creates a Catch-22 situation for a new community: it
    cannot publicise its existence before it has 20 committed members, but must
    do so in order to attract such a membership.

    Fledgling communities of disfavoured faiths thus meet under threat of state
    reprisals, even in private homes. In January 2012 state officials warned
    the pastors of two such Pentecostal groups for conducting unregistered
    worship in villages in Brest Region. In late 2011 police raided a Jehovah's
    Witness house group in Mogilev [Mahilyow] Region.

    The state formally learns such communities exist when they attempt to
    register. In late 2011 police raided two Jehovah's Witness communities
    repeatedly denied state registration in Brest and Gomel Regions. In October
    2009 police and an ideology official raided a village home in Mogilev
    Region, where about 20 members of a Full Gospel charismatic congregation
    were singing hymns. Its registration application had earlier been rejected;
    the KGB secret police questioned those who signed it and claimed to find
    some less than totally familiar with the church's beliefs.

    State registration being compulsory, the Religion Law makes no provision
    for those who do not wish to register. This primarily concerns the Council
    of Churches Baptists, who believe registration leads to state interference.
    (They broke away from the Soviet Union's main Baptist Union in the 1960s
    over moves to limit evangelism and youth work.) In a leaked 2005 report,
    Brest Region's top religious affairs official described the frequency of
    these Baptists' services due to the inaction of junior officials as a
    "depressing situation".

    The Council of Churches Baptists reported 12 fines for unregistered
    religious activity during 2005-6, on several occasions at least half the
    average monthly wage. The 11 fines they reported for 2007-8 were at least
    as high, and on several occasions significantly higher. Forum 18 learnt of
    only five such fines from June 2009 to January 2013; some were still
    substantial, however.

    Administrative "offence"

    Unregistered religious activity is typically treated as an administrative
    "offence" under the Administrative Code: "creation or leadership of a
    religious organisation without state registration or activity by a
    religious organisation not in accordance with its registered statute"
    (Article 9.9, Part 1). The only punishment here is a fine of between four
    and 10 base units. The base unit is used to calculate state benefits and
    wages, and was raised on 1 April 2012 to 100,000 Belarusian Roubles (then
    60 Norwegian Kroner, 9 Euros, or 12 US Dollars).

    Eight fines under Article 9.9, Part 1 were reported from June 2009 to
    January 2013:

    A Council of Churches Baptist community was raided by an ideology official
    and police officer during August 2009 evening prayer at a private home in
    Brest. The host, Yelena Oktyusyuk, was later fined 175,000 Belarusian
    Roubles (then 360 Norwegian Kroner, 40 Euros or 60 US Dollars).

    Also in August 2009, Yevgeny Bakun, a pensioner, was fined 140,000
    Belarusian Roubles (then 280 Norwegian Kroner, 30 Euros or 50 US Dollars).
    A month earlier, police, ideology and religious affairs officials raided
    worship by an unregistered Pentecostal congregation in a hut in the yard of
    his Grodno home. According to the court verdict against Bakun, he gathered
    up to 30 people "into a stable group of fellow-believers by use of

    In December 2009 Sergei Yevstafyev, Aleksei Ilnitsky and Ivan Mustetsanu of
    an unregistered Jehovah's Witness community in Mogilev Region were each
    fined 140,000 Belarusian Roubles. That July about 20 local officials,
    police and KGB secret police forced their way into Ilnitsky's village home
    where - according to the court verdicts against them - "a meeting of
    citizens was underway, of about 30 people, in the course of which those
    present prayed and studied the Bible."

    In April 2009 raids on home worship to mark the Memorial of Christ's death,
    the most important Jehovah's Witness commemoration of the year, led to
    fines of 140,000 Belarusian Roubles for Andrei Varaksa in Mogilev Region,
    and 175,000 Belarusian Roubles for Andrei Kuzin in Minsk Region.

    Positively, restrictions on unregistered religious activity were relaxed
    from 23 February 2010, when an amendment came into force removing this as
    an "offence" from Article 9.9, Part 1. The following month, charges of
    leading unregistered worship were consequently dropped against Jehovah's
    Witness Maksim Pyrochkin in Mogilev Region.

    Following the change, however, Pastor Yuri Petrevich of an Embassy of God
    Protestant congregation in Grodno was fined 140,000 Belarusian Roubles in
    March 2010 after police and KGB secret police raided worship at his home.
    Forum 18 is not aware of the use of Article 9.9, Part 1 to target
    unregistered religious activity subsequently.

    The remaining part of this Article - punishing "activity by a religious
    organisation not in accordance with its registered statute" - is rarely
    used. New Generation Full Gospel Church, in Brest Region, was fined 350,000
    Belarusian Roubles (then 790 Norwegian Kroner, 90 Euros or 120 US Dollars)
    in July 2009 for holding a Sunday worship service that was allegedly not in
    keeping with its statute. It remains unclear how the service did not

    Harsher alternative provision

    Pastor Yuri Petrevich from Grodno (see above) was additionally punished
    under another, harsher provision of the Administrative Code that allows
    prosecution of unsanctioned religious activity. Article 23.34, Part 2
    punishes organisers who violate regulations for holding demonstrations or
    other mass public events with fines ranging from 20 to 40 base units;
    Petrevich was fined 700,000 Belarusian Roubles (then 1,400 Norwegian
    Kroner, 175 Euros, or 230 US Dollars). He estimated this to be about one
    month's average wages in Grodno.

    Positively, Article 23.34 Part 2 was amended in November 2011 to remove
    "other public events" from the list of "gathering, meeting, street
    procession, demonstration, picket" - types of public event requiring
    advance state approval. Despite this, however, two Jehovah's Witnesses
    faced prosecution for home worship in November 2011 and April 2012 under
    Article 23.34, Part 2. Forum 18 is not aware of attempts to use this
    provision subsequently to prosecute unsanctioned religious activity.

    The Article was earlier used repeatedly:

    In September 2011 Pastor Aleksei Abramovich of a Council of Churches
    Baptist congregation in Minsk Region was fined 700,000 Belarusian Roubles
    (then 690 Norwegian Kroner, 90 Euros or 120 US Dollars), for leading
    unregistered worship following a raid by police and an ideology official.
    Fellow Council of Churches Baptist Pastor Nikolai Varushin was fined
    1,050,000 Belarusian Roubles (1,040 Norwegian Kroner, 235 Euros, or 335 US
    Dollars) after police similarly raided a Sunday worship meeting in February

    In June 2010 Pentecostal Pastor Viktor Novik was fined a combined total of
    2,100,000 Roubles (then 4,300 Norwegian Kroner, 540 Euros or 700 US
    Dollars) for singing and distributing Christian leaflets on three occasions
    in a village in Brest Region. He noted that when six church members were
    detained for spreading their faith in similar circumstances in 2009 they
    were merely warned verbally.

    In September 2009 Pentecostal Yevgeny Bakun was also fined 700,000
    Belarusian Roubles (then 1,400 Norwegian Kroner, 175 Euros or 230 US
    Dollars) under Article 23.34, Part 2, in addition to his fine under Article
    9.9, Part 1 (see above). Both Bakun's fines (together worth two and a half
    times his monthly pension) were automatically deducted from his pension in
    instalments, as he did not pay them within one month.

    In July 2009 approximately 10 police and state officials climbed over a
    fence and forced entry to a private Gomel home where several dozen
    Jehovah's Witnesses were meeting. One of the Witnesses, Yuri Reshetnikov,
    was later found to have violated Article 23.34, Part 2 and fined 1,050,000
    Belarusian Roubles (then 2,150 Norwegian Kroner, 260 Euros or 385 US

    While reports of fines are not common, fear of punishment forces many
    religious communities to keep out of sight: in principle, they could face
    criminal prosecution. Introduced in the run-up to the December 2005
    presidential elections, Article 193-1 of the Criminal Code punishes
    "organisation of or participation in activity by an unregistered political
    party, foundation, civil or religious organisation" with a fine or
    imprisonment for up to two years.

    So far, however, Forum 18 has learnt of only two threats to use Article
    193-1 against religious communities. These were by police detaining members
    of a Council of Churches Baptist congregation in Kostyukovichi village
    (Mogilev Region) in February 2011 and by Mozyr District Public Prosecutor's
    Office (Gomel Region) in May and June 2012, when it warned various members
    of the Suzko family about unregistered Pentecostal worship. While the
    Suzkos failed to overturn these warnings, their community went on to obtain
    registration in November 2012.

    Religious property

    Under President Lukashenko, Protestant communities have generally found it
    impossible to get property redesignated so that it can be used for worship
    in line with the law. If a building is not a designated house of worship,
    advance state permission is needed for religious activity, and
    anti-Protestant officials typically refuse to grant it. Orthodox and
    Catholic communities are rarely affected, partly due to the state's more
    positive attitude towards them, but also because they are more likely to
    occupy historically preserved, designated worship buildings.

    Reflecting New Life's experience in Minsk, Stepan Lugovsky, the Jehovah's
    Witness homeowner in the July 2009 Gomel raid (see above), was fined
    700,000 Belarusian Roubles (then 1,400 Norwegian Kroner, 170 Euros or 260
    US Dollars) for "using living premises not for their purpose"
    (Administrative Code, Article 21.16, Part 1).

    In July 2009 Stepan Paripa and Nikolai Pestak, two Council of Churches
    Baptists, were each fined 700,000 Belarusian Roubles under the same
    provision because their unregistered congregation in Baranovichi (Brest
    Region) meets in a private home.

    Another element of New Life's situation is a similar sanction involving
    "misuse" of land for religious worship. In June 2010 two Pentecostal
    village churches in Minsk Region were each fined 700,000 Belarusian Roubles
    for using private homes remodelled for worship, thereby allegedly violating
    the procedure for using a land plot (Administrative Code, Article 15.10,
    Part 3).

    In October 2009 a village Baptist church in Vitebsk Region was fined
    700,000 Belarusian Roubles under the same provision.

    No right to appeal

    Under the Religion Law, a religious organisation found to have violated
    Belarusian law must correct the alleged violation within six months and not
    repeat it in the course of a year. If it fails to do so, the authorities
    may seek to shut the organisation down (Article 37). No legal provision
    exists to challenge such warnings.

    On 5 April 2007 the Constitutional Court highlighted the Religion Law's
    failure to give religious organisations the right to challenge warnings in
    court (Decision R-199). Yet Jehovah's Witness congregations given official
    warnings since that decision have repeatedly tried, but failed, to
    establish the legal right to challenge them.

    The Jehovah's Witness community in Gomel was warned in September 2009 for
    offering literature on the street, but Gomel Regional Court and the Supreme
    Court rejected its attempt to challenge this warning. The Jehovah's Witness
    community in Mogilev was similarly warned in February 2010, when one of its
    members offered literature on the street without advance state permission.
    Again Mogilev Regional Court and the Supreme Court rejected the Jehovah's
    Witnesses' complaint on the grounds that Belarusian law does not envisage
    the possibility of challenging such warnings. In October 2010 Belarus'
    Deputy General Prosecutor rejected their appeal against the courts'
    refusals, on the same grounds.

    Jehovah's Witnesses have also tried but failed to challenge a ban on
    importing religious literature - a time-consuming and burdensome procedure
    even when import is permitted. While approving the import from Germany of
    other Jehovah's Witness texts - including issues of the same magazine - the
    "Expert Council" attached to Minsk's Office of the Plenipotentiary for
    Religious and Ethnic Affairs rejected the 1 May 2012 issue of "The
    Watchtower" for containing allegedly "religious/political" material.

    In September 2012 the Jehovah's Witnesses requested a copy of the Council's
    "expert analysis" from Plenipotentiary Gulyako, pointing out that by law
    such analyses must be provided to the relevant religious community within
    10 days. They also asked how such a decision might be challenged.

    In his 22 December 2012 response to the Jehovah's Witnesses, Deputy
    Plenipotentiary Vladimir Lameko relayed the reasoning behind the Expert
    Council's rejection. This was that the material "examines issues of the
    political socialisation of the personality" and "argues for a position of
    refusing participation in political events on the basis that Satan and
    'evil spiritual forces' govern the world". However, continued Lameko, the
    Religion Law states that religious organisations are formed "to fulfil
    religious, and not political, needs". He dismissed the possibility of
    challenging this conclusion: "There is no basis for changing the decision
    on the given question."

    No other individuals or communities have complained to Forum 18 about
    government censorship of religious literature.

    In May 2007 the secretary of a Lutheran Union from Vitebsk identified only
    as V.S. lodged an appeal to the United Nations Human Rights Committee under
    the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The
    Lutheran complained that various Belarusian courts - including the Supreme
    Court and the Higher Economic Court - had repeatedly rejected suits
    challenging official warnings from the Plenipotentiary, again citing the
    Religion Law's failure to set out a procedure for protesting against such

    Although the original warning to the Lutheran community was about their
    seal and headed paper, the Lutheran noted that it had serious consequences.
    Once the Plenipotentiary had issued the warning, his Office refused to
    process any further requests from the community. Thus, it would not
    consider a request to allow Lutherans from the United States to visit the
    community in Belarus.

    The UN Committee's 30 October 2011 finding noted that the question was
    repeatedly passed back to the Plenipotentiary whenever the Lutheran
    appealed to various state agencies to incorporate a procedure for
    challenging official warnings into the Religion Law. However, while the
    Committee also recognised that restrictions on a religious community affect
    individuals, it rejected the Lutheran's complaint because it had been
    lodged individually, not from the community itself

    Conscientious objectors

    In defiance of Belarus' international human rights obligations to respect
    religious freedom, no mechanism exists for conscientious objectors to
    compulsory military service to perform a genuinely civilian alternative

    (Other Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)
    participating States without a civilian alternative service possibility for
    conscientious objectors and where objectors are imprisoned are Armenia,
    Azerbaijan, Turkey and Turkmenistan. The unrecognised breakaway entity of
    Nagorno-Karabakh also imprisons conscientious objectors.)

    With a few exceptions, or deferments due to health problems or family
    circumstances, all Belarusian men aged between 18 and 27 are required to do
    12 or 18 months' military service.

    This is also despite Belarus' own 1994 Constitution (Article 57), and a
    requirement for call-up commissions to offer alternative service in the
    1992 Law on Military Obligation and Military Service (Article 36). A 2000
    Constitutional Court ruling called for "urgent" amendment of the 1992 Law
    or adoption of an Alternative Service Law.

    "On Alternative Service" is among 34 draft laws to be considered in 2013 in
    line with a 3 January 2013 presidential decree. According to the decree's
    timetable, completion of the draft law is envisaged in July 2013 and its
    presentation to the Palace of Representatives (lower house of parliament)
    in October 2013. According to Vera Chaushnik of the government's National
    Centre for Legislation and Legal Research, the earliest it could be adopted
    would be 2014.

    Earlier similar proposals have stalled. Draft alternative service laws were
    rejected by parliament in 2004, and removed from the 2010 legislative
    programme at the last minute. After President Lukashenko ordered the
    drafting of such a law in February 2010, a government working group was set
    up, but it did not meet the September 2012 target for submitting a draft to
    the Council of Ministers.

    Under the Criminal Code, conscientious objectors may be fined or imprisoned
    for up to two years for "refusal of call-up to military service" (Article
    435, Part 1). Those who refuse military service on grounds of conscience
    are sometimes allowed to serve in the Railway Troops without taking the
    military oath. But this is not acceptable for some, notably Jehovah's

    In the first prosecution since 2000 under Article 435, Part 1, Jehovah's
    Witness Dmitry Smyk was fined 3,500,000 Belarusian Roubles (then 7,230
    Norwegian Kroner, 860 Euros or 1,290 US Dollars) in November 2009, and
    banned both from leaving Belarus and travelling within the country without
    notifying the authorities. However, he was eventually acquitted in May

    Messianic Jew Ivan Mikhailov was sentenced to three months in prison under
    the same article in February 2010; he served almost all of this term before

    In 2010 pacifist Yevhen Yakovenko received a one-year sentence of
    restricted freedom under the same article, but automatically fell under an
    amnesty to mark the 65th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

    More recent cases failed to reach court. In late 2011 Jehovah's Witness
    Aleksandr Belous was threatened with criminal prosecution, but the charges
    were dropped in April 2012. Pacifist Andrei Chernousov was forcibly
    confined to a psychiatric hospital for five days in May 2012 in order to
    establish if his convictions leading him to refuse call-up accorded with
    "norms of psychiatric health".

    Young men may also be denied their right to freedom of religion or belief
    while conscripted. Currently conscripted Youth Front activist Pavel Sergei
    - whose opposition to both the regime and military service is motivated by
    his Christian faith - has been prevented from attending church.

    Prisoners' religious freedom

    Convicts in ordinary prisons have fewer problems gaining access to
    religious representatives, worship services and religious literature than
    inmates of pre-trial detention centres and maximum-security prisons, which
    usually share a building or complex.

    However, this often depends on the prisoner's religious affiliation and the
    prison's location. The state's concordat-style 2003 Co-operation Agreement
    with the Belarusian Orthodox Church recognises provision of Orthodox
    pastoral care to prisoners and detainees among its priorities, and Orthodox
    priests have access to every prison for visits and religious services.
    Catholic priests have access to prisons in majority Catholic areas.

    Protestant pastors report difficulties in accessing prisons, particularly
    since 2006. The deputy chief of Minsk's Punishment Implementation
    Department - which controls pastoral visits - told Forum 18 that it is
    "very strict at not admitting any random person into prisons. Sometimes
    they disguise themselves as other religions and have a negative influence
    over the inmates. For this reason access is only possible for Orthodox and
    Catholic priests, which means registered religions." He gave no examples of
    the "negative influence" he alleged.

    Imams are never allowed to visit Muslim prisoners. Many convicts and clergy
    of different religions are unaware that the possibility for such visits
    exists. Also, "inmates are afraid of exercising their religious freedom
    rights, as they fear that the prison staff's attitude will be tougher",
    Protestant Pastor Boris Chernoglaz told Forum 18 in July 2011.

    In Belarus' two maximum-security prisons, non-Orthodox Christian inmates
    are permitted one visit by a cleric each year as long as the prison
    administration approves it, according to Minsk-based lawyer Vlasta Oleksuk.
    In Zhodino's maximum-security prison, an Orthodox priest can visit inmates

    Death-row prisoners

    The problem of pastoral visits is acute in the case of death-row prisoners.
    Belarus is the only country in Europe that carries out the death penalty.

    The Criminal Enforcement Code guarantees death-row prisoners the right "to
    have meetings with a priest" (Article 174). However, prisoners sentenced to
    death - which sentence is almost never commuted to life imprisonment - may
    not be granted visits they request.

    Prison sources say that death-row prisoners are informed of their
    executions only minutes beforehand. In 2011 Andrei Burdyka - executed
    sometime between 13 and 19 July - had arranged for a visit by an Orthodox
    priest on 20 July. No opportunity was given for this visit to be brought

    Andrei Zhuk - convicted of murder and executed on 18 March 2010 - was one
    of a small number of prisoners known to have been executed in Belarus since
    2008. Zhuk's mother told Forum 18 that his lawyer had asked if he wanted a
    visit from a priest but that he had declined, as he did not expect the
    death sentence immediately.

    The bodies of executed prisoners are not given to their families, the date
    and place of burial is kept secret, and no opportunity is given for a
    religious burial service.

    The mother and sister of Vladislav Kovalev complained to the UN Human
    Rights Committee that their right to freedom, thought and conscience (among
    other rights) was violated by his state execution on 15 March 2012. In
    refusing to give Kovalev's family his body for an Orthodox burial, the
    women argued, the state violated their right to religious freedom.

    Kovalev was convicted of aiding another defendant in carrying out the April
    2011 terrorist attack on the Minsk metro. He, his family and human rights
    defenders rejected the charges.

    On 29 October 2012 the UN Committee concluded that the state's refusal to
    hand over death-row prisoners' bodies for burial and to disclose the place
    of burial "have the effect of intimidating or punishing the family by
    intentionally leaving it in a state of uncertainty and mental distress".
    Viewing this as amounting to inhuman treatment in violation of the ICCPR
    (Article 7 - Freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment
    or punishment), the Committee did not examine the women's claim that the
    ICCPR's Article 18 on freedom of religion or belief had also been violated
    (Communication No. 2120/2011). (END)

    Previous Forum 18 Belarus religious freedom surveys can be found at

    For a personal commentary by Antoni Bokun, Pastor of a Pentecostal Church
    in Minsk, on Belarusian citizens' struggle to reclaim their history as a
    land of religious freedom, see F18News 22 May 2008

    Full reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Belarus can be
    found at

    A compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe
    (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments can be found at

    A printer-friendly map of Belarus is available at

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    Past and current Forum 18 information can be found at