By The Associated Press
MINSK, Belarus (AP) - Parishioners of an evangelical Protestant church that faces closure in Belarus stepped up their hunger strike protest on Tuesday.
Seventeen members of the New Life church launched the protest at the threatened church in the ex-Soviet republic's capital, Minsk, on Friday and another 17 joined the action on Tuesday.
"I am ready to starve until the authorities return our church," said Viktoria Medvedeva, who was lying on a mattress inside the church.
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.
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, according to Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko.
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.
"They are treating us worse than in Communist times," said Goncharenko. "We are ready for the worst - a forcible occupation of the building."
Lukashenko has ruled with an iron hand since 1994, silencing dissent and punishing opponents. The U.S. administration refers to him as Europe's last dictator.