10 Americans Ordered to Leave Belarus

The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus -- Ten Americans left Belarus on Friday after authorities ordered them deported for allegedly singing religious songs and reading spiritual literature, in violation of laws restricting religious activity in the former Soviet republic.

The Americans "preferred to leave Belarus voluntarily" after authorities decided they should be deported, said Interior Ministry spokesman Oleg Slepchenko.

Slepchenko said police raided what was supposed to be a seminar in conversational English at an evangelical Protestant church in the eastern city of Mogilev. He said police found bibles on the tables, and participants were singing religious songs instead of talking.

The Americans, who arrived in Belarus Feb. 5, were fined and warned they were violating the law with their activities, Slepchenko said. But authorities later caught them repeating the alleged violations, he said.

Distrust of foreign missionaries and Protestant churches is strong in many largely Orthodox Christian and Muslim nations of the former Soviet Union.

President Alexander Lukashenko, accused by the West of crushing democracy in Belarus, signed legislation in 2002 that strongly favors the dominant Russian Orthodox church and limits the activities of smaller religious groups.

The United States has criticized the government of Belarus, a nation of 10 million, for discriminating against minority religions.