Evangelical Protestants in Belarus rally against their church closure

The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus About 1,000 parishioners of an evangelical Protestant church rallied Saturday to protest its possible closure by authorities in the ex-Soviet nation.

The New Life church bought a disused building and a patch of surrounding land three years ago and made improvements, but the authorities last year ordered the church to vacate the building and sell it to the government at a nominal price.

"We are facing a tougher persecution than even during the Communist times," said one protester, Yelena Kuchinskaya. She held a banner saying "We are Praying for Belarus."

The rally was sanctioned by the authorities, and police didn't intervene.

"Freedom of conscience must return to Belarus," Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko said at the rally. He said that about 40 parishioners had been on a hunger strike for several weeks to protest the church closure.

Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko initiated and signed legislation in 2002 that strongly favors the dominant Russian Orthodox Christian church and restricts the activities of smaller religious groups.

Three lawsuits and an appeal to Lukashenko have failed to reverse the decision, and the parishioners, who number about 2,000, fear the government will take steps to force them out.

Lukashenko has ruled the nation of 10 million with an iron hand since 1994, silencing dissent, punishing opponents and extending his rule through votes the West has denounced as fraudulent. The United States and other Western nations refer to him as "Europe's last dictator."