Persecution Watchdog Calls on Belarus Officials to Stop Threatening Church

Persecution watchdog International Christian Concern has appealed to Belarus officials to end its campaign of persecution on the New Life Church in Minsk.

by Maria Mackay

The Washington-DC based human rights group, International Christian Concern (ICC) has just learned that New Life Church in Minsk, Belarus, is in the midst of a fierce legal battle with city authorities to keep their property, and has started a hunger-strike to protest the government's arbitrary decision to repossess their building.

New Life Church has been fighting for a place to meet since September 2004. The church moved to a disused cowshed on the outskirts of the city after it was prohibited from renting a public venue for meetings.

The response from the government was to issue New Life Church with several large fines for using the building in a manner not consistent with its purpose, ICC said.

At the same time, city officials refuse to allow a change in their zoning laws to permit the cowshed to be transformed into a house of worship.

On 6 October, city officials transferred the miniscule price they had set for the building into New Life's account and declared that the church's time was up to keep its property, ICC reported.

After exhausting all avenues of appeal, the 1,000 member church declared that they would stage a protest and hunger-strike, holding services every day. The protest has swelled in number from 17 people to almost 160, and is now starting to attract international attention.

The church continues to face a troubling degree of persecution, however. The church reported that on October 11, a trailer moving a bulldozer and two trucks, and three minibuses with tinted windows, drove to their building but did not explain why they were there. The driver of the trailer said that they had been sent by the Minsk City Executive Committee to "level things up here," but did not take any action as he was "waiting for further orders."

In addition, on the evening of 17 October a group of senior police officers and others dressed in plain clothes came to the church and monitored it for an extended period of time.

Now the news that a senior state official has told New Life Church to re-submit their appeal is a renewed call to action. There is hope that the Belarusian government could reverse its course and allow New Life to keep the building.

ICC has appealed to all Christians to contact their Belarusian embassy to ask them to uphold religious freedom by allowing New Life Church in Minsk to keep its property.