Scenes from Doctor Zhivago flashed in my minds eye as the plane flew over the snow-covered land of Eastern Europe leading into Minsk, Belarus. Little did I know that snippets of Zhivago's life and how it was affected by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent Russian Civil War would become part of my own story.
In the landlocked Republic of Belarus, once part of the former Soviet Union, I was a recent election observer with the Florida-based Spiritual Diplomacy Foundation. The organization consults various governments on spiritual matters and joined other international observers for the Dec. 19 elections.
Belarus's history of political repression has come with religious restrictions as well. Lingering Soviet policies toward religious freedom still exist in the independent Belarus. Several "opposition candidates" ran on platforms calling for more liberties for the nation's citizens.
Less than one percent of the total population is evangelical Christian while the remaining is either Russian Orthodox or Catholic. I met several of these born again Christians and in whispering tones they secretly shared their fears of possible persecution. Believers also send 'coded' email messages trying to communicate concerns about the government's intimidation on evangelical churches.
Peter Asheichyk, rector of the Bible College of Christians of Evangelical Faith, concedes times are tough for those of the evangelical faith in Belarus. The college and church, initiated by the Dallas-based Christ for the Nations church, focuses on teaching students leadership skills and biblical principals.
"Of course for evangelical churches right now it's not easy days -- it's very hard days for small churches and Christians," said Asheichyk. "For example, if I'm going to somewhere as a leader of the Bible school and trying to conduct some business -- they're thinking that I'm a bad guy, I'm pro-American, and I'm using American monies...."
Asheichyk grew up in the former Soviet Union where Christians were routinely persecuted.
"It is complicated in Belarus," Asheichyk says. "We have bad laws for religious groups and it has to be changed."
In 1997 a new constitution gave the Belarusian government "the right and obligation to regulate religion." It is now often thought to be the last such law in Europe, but is in keeping with the country's political climate.
Largely known as the 'last dictator in Europe,' President Alexander Lukashenko won comfortably in 2006 amid vote rigging allegations. Similar claims dogged last months' elections, in which Lukashenko won a fourth term in office by gaining nearly 80 percent of vote. Some have expressed concern with voting irregularities while groups like Spiritual Diplomacy say it witnessed legitimate free and democratic elections.
I didn't personally witness irregularities. On Election Day itself, however, our team only spent approximately 30 minutes in two different polling stations observing the voting process. Rather odd considering the expense and time to host our team. I left Belarus feeling like I had not really been given the chance to fairly do my job as an observer.
As election results were released, however, thousands of peaceful protesters gathered in the capitol's main Oktyabrskaya Square to hear several opposition presidential candidates challenge the validity of the elections. Shouting, "Belarus Lives," the crowd swelled to estimates ranging as high as 40,000. Protesters then paraded to the Belarusian parliament in central Minsk, where some individuals smashed the glass doors. Opposition leaders claim these particular individuals were planted by the government. Anti-riot police were waiting inside the building clubbing potential 'intruders.'
Standing outside the Minsk Hotel along with a handful of international journalists, I witnessed elderly peaceful protesters fall victim to violent beatings. I myself came within inches of being clubbed by police, but escaped the onslaught of aggression by slipping into the hotel lobby. There the police barricaded several of us as the Internet and mobile phone service was suspended, hindering communication to services like Facebook and Gmail.
Belarus' Christians have seen similar clamps on information and say life is harder for them now than ever before. Nonetheless, they continue to meet.
Dr. Alexander Firisiuk, past-president of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptist in Belarus, also knows the grief that has come because of his faith. As a youth, Firisiuk was secretly baptized at night. As a pastor, he performed this same ritual in secrecy for others.
Firisiuk boldly proclaimed that religious laws are worse now than during Stalin's regime. But the retired pastor, and many like him, say they aren't bitter towards their oppressors; rather, they have forgiven them.
"We live in the most independent county because nothing depends on us, but on God." said Firisiuk.
Many of the opposition candidates are devoted Christians. Lawyer of New Life church, a congregation who has received ongoing harassment from the government, and opposition leader Sergey Lukanin had his apartment searched by KGB officials following the recent elections. Lukanin says he was also detained for questioning in connection with the December 19 protests.
Allegations of Flawed Elections
Since the election, five candidates were charged with organizing violent mass riots. Vladimir Neklyayev, a leading opposition candidate, was beaten and taken to a nearby hospital. His wife shared with me that four plainclothed men wrapped her husband in a blanket and hustled him away to an unknown location. President Lukashenko later confirmed Neklyayev and the other opposition candidates were being held in a prison. Some of those arrested could face up to 15 years in prison for "organizing mass disturbances."
Silver Meikar, a key leader of the Estonian Reform Party since 1997 and a member of the parliament of Estonia, said the treatment of the opposition and protesters "was not compatible with the free world's understanding of democracy and human rights."
Mikhail Morgulis, chairman of the Spiritual Diplomacy Foundation, says Lukashenko remains popular among large sections of the population.
"Many older Belarusians want to keep what they have now," said Morgulis. "There is a belief that it is better to have a little than to have nothing at all."
Despite certain improvements, election observers representing the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly concluded "this election failed to give Belarus the new start it needed. The counting process lacked transparency. The people of Belarus deserve better."
While democracy is defined in various ways not always embraced by the West, this reporter was anxious to touch US soil with a new vigor to support laws which protect our freedoms of speech and religious expression. Issues like 'Net Neutrality,' which seeks further government control of media outlets, comes eerily close to restricting those freedoms my new Belarusian brothers and sisters so desperately desire.
Russ Jones is an award winning journalist and co-publisher of Christian Press Newspaper (ChristianPress.com) based in Newton, Kansas. Jones holds degrees from the University of Missouri and St. Paul School of Theology. As a former NBC TV reporter he enjoys reporting where evangelical Christian faith and news of the day intersect. Jones is also a freelance reporter for the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Total Living Network, Travel with Spirit and American Family Radio Network. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or see russjones.me.