Christian churches in Belarus harassed by twisted legalese

Christian churches are continually harassed in Belarus through the use of "twisted legalese" and a legal vacuum that permits free interpretation of laws that are used regularly to harass them.

This has been the experience of an eight year conflict between New Life Pentecostal Church in Minsk which has resulted in a massive fine for alleged "environmental damage" on their own property.

New Life Pentecostal Church purchased a cowshed in 2002 for use as a church worship center. However, state authorities did not allow the church to legally change its designation from a cow shed into a house of worship. Hence it had to be used only as a cow shed, Forum 18 said.

The church was also barred from using public facilities for worship. At one point they considered keeping a few cows in the barn so it could be legitimized nominally, but the capital city of Minsk had already banned animal husbandry, Forum 18 said.

As a result they continued to worship in their cow shed even as they continued to pursue all legal avenues for their case. In 2005 the city ordered the church to sell its building. The following year a bulldozer was sent to ram the church down. Churchgoers embarked on a hunger strike which led to global support on their behalf, and a meeting between New Life's pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko and a leading presidential official, Forum 18 said.

There followed a seeming impasse, but last year they were ordered to vacate their building to give way to a kindergarten school. Because the congregation had spent funds to buy and restore the cow shed, they refused and continued to worship on the site, Forum 18 said.

Now New Life has been told they must pay a fine of 265,750,000 Belarusian Roubles ($89,300). Judge Oleg Klyuko explained the breakdown saying 249,000,000 Belarusian Roubles are for state claims on cost of cleaning alleged damage to the property, ASSIST News said.

Another 8,000,000 Roubles is for "compensation" for the state's cost in filing the case, totaling 257,000,000 Roubles ($86,400). Plus, an added 8,750,000 Roubles ($2,900) for damage caused to the land by building a car park leading to the grand total of 265,750,000 Roubles ($89,300), ASSIST News said.

Of late, officials are now saying a path that connects the nearest road to the car park of the church was built illegally. However, New Life said the path was already there when they bought the cow shed, ANS said.

A spokesman of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Committee said the path is under investigation and no conclusion has been reached yet, ANS said.

Belarus, a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, is viewed according to a Forum 18 survey to have not changed its repressive religious policies since the time it was under Russia, Forum 18 said.

Still they seek a relationship with the European Union positioning themselves as an alternative to Russia. Religious freedom is one aspect of qualification to the EU. However state permission is required in all group religious activity in Belarus, Forum 18 said.

The 2002 Religion Law in Belarus is deemed highly repressive and requires state registration of religious groups and geographic restrictions on where they can meet. The laws can be twisted if they wish, to make it impossible for churches to function, Forum 18 said.

Implementation of the Religion Law is not uniform. The state retains control through sporadic prosecution, enough to intimidate religious groups without provoking a large scale backlash, Forum 18 said.

One Belarusian Protestant said, "They have created conditions so you can't live by the law. We would need to close half our churches in order to operate technically in accordance with the law," Forum 18 said.

In the case of New Life for example, the city's Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Committee states that a grassy area that was cultivated for a children's playground may damage the environment, ANS said.

Sergei Lukanin, legal counsel of New Life said the church will not pay the fine and states that any pollution that may be at the site was there before they bought it, and the church has taken care of the building and the environment, ANS said.

Meanwhile, two smaller Pentecostal churches have been fined for using their own properties for worship. Officials say the homes are registered only for domestic use. A member of the Pentecostal Union said they will pay the fines adding, "Raising such sums is difficult for such a small community. The fear is that officials could do this again - the mechanism is there," ANS said.

Sergei Tsvor, deputy head of the Pentecostal Union said many small congregations cannot afford anything more than a private home. However, a "legal vacuum" makes it nearly impossible to transfer the use of property to a place for worship, ANS said.

Tsvor said, "Earlier the stress was on the alleged misuse of the building, while now it is on the use of the land that they stand on."

Protestant churches have faced more difficulty in this area compared to Orthodox and Catholic churches who usually own their worship buildings. Officials also place obstacles along the way so these groups cannot rent property for service, ANS said.

Even preaching on public land is costly. One pastor of a Pentecostal church was fined three times in a single day for sharing his faith outdoors on the grounds that he did not get official permission, ANS said.


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