ASSIST News Service
BELARUS -- Baptizing 70 people in a lake has resulted in the pastor of one of Belarus' largest Pentecostal churches being fined over 150 times the minimum wage.
Belarus is located in Eastern Europe, east of Poland.
"We didn't manage to appeal against the court's decision in time and now we're deciding what to do next," a member of Salvation Pentecostal Church speaking on condition of anonymity told Forum 18. "If we are fined again within a year, the authorities will have grounds to close the church down."
To Forum 18's knowledge, this is the first time that a member congregation of a mainstream Protestant church group has been faced with such a huge fine for unsanctioned religious activity.
Similarly heavy fines have been imposed on New Life, the Minsk-based charismatic church (see F18News). New Life is also facing the building it uses for worship being taken from it by the authorities (see F18News ).
Also heavily fined has been a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in the Brest region (see F18News).
Pastor Sergei Poznyakovich baptized about 70 people in a local lake on July 2, a congregation member told Forum 18 from the small town of Baranovichi in south-west Belarus, where Salvation Pentecostal Church is located.
The Pentecostal - whose son was among the baptized - was not aware of any state representatives observing the event, but stated that police officers subsequently visited the church on July 16.
As a result of the baptisms, Judge Oksana Kusheva of Baranovichi Municipal Court on Aug. 30 fined Poznyakovich 4,650,000 Belarusian Roubles (2,171 US Dollars), the congregation member confirmed to Forum 18. Also, the Pentecostal Union's bishop for Brest region, Nikolai Kurkayev, was fined 640,000 Belarusian Roubles (or 298 US Dollars).
Forum 18 reported that founded in the 1920's, Salvation Pentecostal Church has about 1,500 adult members. The church holds state registration and worships at its prayer house, an imposing building constructed in the early 1990's.
The baptisms should not have taken place in the lake, "due to a higher than permitted level of bacterial pollution in the water," Baranovichi's state official dealing with religious affairs told Forum 18.
Forum 18 reported that Ruslan Krutko also claimed that this had been repeatedly explained to Salvation Pentecostal Church prior to the baptisms and alternative sites offered, "but they particularly wanted the lake right next to the church."
While confirming that the authorities had failed to respond formally to the Pentecostals' request for the outdoor event with either permission or a ban, Forum 18 reported that Krutko said the law regulating mass public events insists that official permission is obtained in advance. He said, "The state authorities would be responsible if something happened to people, so we have certain rules."
Poznyakovich's fine - equivalent to 150 times the minimum wage - was so large because the church performed similarly unsanctioned baptisms in the same lake in 2005, Krutko told Forum 18. Article 167 of the Administrative Violations Code punishes a repeat violation of legislation regulating mass public events with a fine of between 150 and 300 times the minimum wage, or imprisonment of between ten and 15 days.
According to Forum 18, Poznyakovich confirmed that in 2005 he was fined 640,000 Belarusian Roubles (or 298 U.S. dollars) for performing baptisms, the independent Belarusian news agency Belapan reported on Aug. 31. He also claimed that the lake preferred by the church is "the cleanest in town," and that, while it is not officially recommended to swim in it, "neither is it forbidden to do so."
The Belarusian authorities are hostile to religious believers sharing their beliefs in public, and such religious activity faces numerous restrictions under the harsh Religion Law, Forum 18 reported (see F18News www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=842).
In the wake of presidential elections this spring, Reformed Baptist pastor Georgi Vyazovsky and religious freedom lawyer Sergei Shavtsov both served ten-day jail sentences under Article 167 of the Administrative Violations Code after organizing unsanctioned religious meetings (see F18News and F18News).
On July 13, Forum 18 reported that the Supreme Court upheld Minsk City Court's May 26 ruling dissolving Vyazovsky's Christ's Covenant Church (see F18News).