Monday, 19 September 2005

Talks Break Down Between Embattled Belarus Church and Government

By BosNewsLife International Correspondents Agnes R. Bos and Stefan J. Bos

MINSK, BELARUS (BosNewsLife) -- One of the largest evangelical churches in Belarus which authorities want to close down is considering new demonstrations against religious persecution, as talks with national and local government officials about its future broke down earlier Monday, September 19, a church representative said.

Sergei Lukashin, the lawyer of the 1000-strong New Life Church in Minsk, told BosNewsLife that "bureaucrats" handed over a demand "from the city government to take over our building," a former cowshed, after authorities already confiscated New Life's plot of land.

"They claim they need the building because they want to construct an apartment complex there. But we have nowhere to worship now as everyone is either refusing or afraid to give us space," Lukashin said after talks in the Ministry of Interior in Minsk between a New Life delegation and Deputy Interior Minister Viktor Filistovich as well as national and local religious policy officials.

"Tonight [Monday, September 19] the members of our congregation will gather to discuss the situation. We are in a very decisive mood and ready to go on the streets to push our case," he added.


Lukashin said he was disappointed that Deputy Interior Minister Filistovich, "did not keep his promise to mediate between the New Life Church and high level government officials and to look for a positive solution." His alleged promise was the main reason why a demonstration in Minsk was postponed Friday.

"The only reason why he made the promise seems to have been the trip by the Belarusian President [Alexander Lukashenko] to the United States for the United Nations summit. He asked us not to spoil the image of Belarus abroad..."

He said Monday's meeting was attended by a New Life delegation, Filistovich as well as religious policy officials from the city and national government.

National and local government representatives have defended their policies toward the New Life Church saying the congregation does not follow established building regulations. Officials maintain that the cowshed - purchased by the church in 2002 - can only be used "for its designated purpose" and already imposed heavy fines for violations.


However Sergei Lukashin has said this "requirement" is in fact impossible "as animal husbandry is illegal in Minsk city." A nearby Orthodox community, which uses a disused railway carriage for worship, has not faced similar problems, said human rights watchdog Forum 18 earlier.

In addition the church has been unable to obtain permission to gather elsewhere, church officials and human rights watchers claim. Lukashin told BosNewsLife that the renovated cowshed is now valued at $1.2 million "but in the best scenario we will only get a small fraction of that amount. So we have nowhere to worship."

New Life is one of about 60 congregations of the evangelical Full Gospel Union Church domination, but has come to symbolize what human rights watchers describe as "widespread persecution" of non-Orthodox churches.


The difficulties, including church closures and arrests, have been linked to a controversial 2002 Law on Freedom of Conscience which required all existing churches to re-register. "The purpose of this law seems to have been to restrict religious movements and their growth, except for the official [Orthodox] church," said human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide last week.

However by "running such a race we have learnt how to trust God more then before," said New Life Pastor Slava Goncharenko. "Everything looks like in the time of Nehemiah. We get to do the Lord's work and fight all the time for it."

The former Soviet Republic of Belarus has been described by United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as "the last true dictatorship" in Central Europe, charges the government strongly denies.