Five questions why Belarus tries to liquidate an Evangelical church
Will they still exist next year? Or even next month? For churches in Belarus, this question is real. Especially the New Life Church in Minsk has been the target of the Belarusian authorities for months already. Next week, the congregation will be in court.
Why does the church have to appear before a judge?
The public prosecutor in Belarus wants to dismantle the New Life Church in Minsk altogether. The first hearing was last week Friday. That day, Minsk City Court Judge Tatiana Doroschenok considered the claim of the city executive committee for the liquidation of the Minsk Full Gospel Church "New Life", Belarus 2020 reports. The pastor of the New Life Church, Vyacheslav Goncharenko, announced that the main trial will be on October 17. If the church is stripped of its status, any activity could be punishable with a jail term of two years.
The Minsk authorities started the process to liquidate the New Life Church, InVictory states. The Norwegian organisation Forum 18 requested the reason for this dismantling, but Ekaterina Kaverina, who is the deputy head of the department for coordination of ideological work, affairs of religions and nationalities of the Minsk City Executive Committee, refused to answer.
However, Belarus 2020 points out that Kaverina states in her lawsuit that the church failed to re-register as required by Belarusian law. In addition, the congregation is accused of organising activities that fall beyond its scope, such as summer camps for children. Furthermore, she referred to "war propaganda or extremist activities", which can lead a church to be dismantled.
Also, the authorities placed a large tax demand on the congregation. According to Minsk's Housing Repair and Utilities Association, which now claims ownership of the New Life Church's land, the church owes 458,918 Belarusian rubles (more than 132,000 euros).
Does this court case just come out of the blue?
No, the New Life Church has had a conflict with the authorities for years. It may have started in 2002 already when the government turned down several requests of the congregation to recognise its new premises as a house of worship. That year, the church had bought a plot of land with a cowshed, which they had already turned into a church building.
After these repeated refusals, the conflict has only escalated further. Even though the authorities denied them the right to use their plot of land, the members of the New Life Church continued to gather for their services.
At the beginning of 2021, the congregation was evicted from the church by force. The building was sealed. Nevertheless, this did not withhold the members from meeting. Instead, they came together in the parking lot despite it being cold and wintry.
Determined to break up the church, the Belarusian authorities proceeded to criminalise the worship services in September 2022. They detained pastor Goncharenko and punished him with a fine, Forum 18 writes.
Last July, the Belarusian authorities destroyed the church building altogether. In August, they took down the website of the church.
The court case may be the keystone of the harassment if the church is liquidated altogether this time.
How is the church dealing with this pressure from the authorities?
After the preliminary hearing at the court last Friday, pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko declared seven days of fasting and prayer between October 9 and October 15.
"Let's stand before the Lord to see the miracle of the Lord", the pastor encouraged the members of his congregation.
The church has hired lawyers to fight against the liquidation suit, says Goncharenko to Forum 18. They also plan to appeal against the suit over land tax. The New Life Church "is ready for the struggle", the pastor assured.
Earlier, the church had already shown determination to swim against the tide. Earlier, pastor Goncharenko said to Forum 18 that he believed that God takes care of the church. "So many times, the authorities came and threatened us, but our church is still functioning", he said after the church was threatened with criminalisation.
The pastor sees the latest lawsuit as revenge of the authorities for "years of resistance, disobedience and for the hunger strike to defend its property."
How does the new law on religious organisations in the country relate to the case?
Earlier this year, the Belarusian government was considering new amendments that would make the law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations even stricter. This could impact the lawsuit, as the new law also gives more power to the Commissioner for Religious and Ethnic Affairs. The Commissioner can even terminate any religious activities without consulting anyone. Also, the list of reasons why a church may be closed becomes even longer.
In addition, only registered religious communities may carry out activities. Communities that do so without permission or registration are prohibited.
This law would make it even easier for the deputy head of the department of coordination of ideological work to push the liquidation of the New Life Church through the court.
To what extent does the Belarusian harassment of the New Life Church fit into a trend?
The New Life Church in Minsk is not the only one that is in trouble with the Belarusian authorities. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, experiences strict regulations and detention of priests, CNE reported earlier.
At the beginning of this year, the Roman Catholic Red Church in Minsk was closed. The authorities took several measures to get the members out of the building, such as turning off the hot water so that the temperatures dropped to uncomfortable lows. Believers took their own firewood to church, but that was forbidden as well.
Since 2020, when Lukashenko stayed in power after the controversial elections, the Belarusian regime has started to crack down harshly on everyone who they see as a threat to the regime. People who participated in the so-called peace marches against the regime are in danger of persecution. One of them is pastor Vitaly Chichmarev. In an interview with CNE, he says that he is under house arrest for joining the marches.
The only church that can meet in relative freedom in Belarus is the Orthodox Church. However, this denomination is sometimes accused of collaborating with the Lukashenko regime too much.
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