Free House Churches Banned in Belarus

Friday, August 1, 2003

By: Stefan J. Bos,
Eastern Europe Correspondent,
ASSIST News Service

MINSK/BUDAPEST (ANS) -- Authorities in the former Soviet republic of Belarus have told Christians and other religious communities they can no longer hold meetings in their homes without prior permission, news reports said Friday, December 13.

The Keston News Service (KNS) quoted the senior religious affairs official in the Belarusian capital Minsk, Alla Ryabitseva, as saying that if "more than ten people gather together for a religious meeting without official permission they would be committing a crime."

Ryabitseva reportedly made the remarks to religious communities registered in the Frunze district of Minsk at a meeting to explain new religious legislation, which human rights watchers described as "Europe's most restrictive law."

"She said private homes are not places designated for the holding of religious meetings and therefore such permission is obligatory," said KNS, which has close knowledge about persecuted Christians.

Dina Shavtsova, a Minsk-based involved in religious liberty cases, told KNS that "the uncertainty surrounding the norms of the religion law allows local officials to give their own interpretation" to the legislation, that came into force November 16.

Shavtsova was quoted as saying that this legal development "leads to the direct limitation of the rights" of citizens. She said "a whole range of Evangelical churches which don't have their own church buildings have been deprived of the right to rent halls in Minsk."

"They can now only meet in home groups, though even this possibility is now dependent on the whims of one or another bureaucrat," the lawyer added. Several church leaders and Christians have reportedly been summoned by local officials to explain their activities.

Bishop Sergei Khomich, head of the Pentecostal Union which has more than 490 registered communities in the country, said he had heard that Pentecostal leaders would be invited in the future. Other church leaders had similar complaints.

"They (the authorities) have all our activity under control," confirmed Georgi Vyazovsky, pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Minsk, another non traditional denomination, in an interview with KNS.

He said regional authorities had already seen a copy of a magazine published by his church criticizing the Orthodox view on icons, as part of what appears to be censorship rules for religious publications.

"We have not even sent out the copies yet, so they (the officials) must have got them from the printing house," the pastor was quoted as saying.

While the Orthodox Church leaders have expressed support for the new religious law, the United States and the European Union have strongly condemned Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for signing the new legislation.

Because of his perceived poor records on human rights, Lukashenko was recently banned last month entering the Czech Republic during the landmark NATO summit in Prague.