Hunger Strikers call for Support and Solidarity
Human Rights Center "Viasna" received an open letter in support of "New Life" Church believers. Below you will find teh full text of their appeal to teh public as well as brief statistics and background of the case.
Some words about the freedom of consciousness in Belarus
n The Constitution of Belarus declares the equality of all religions. However, the current special legislation is predominately oriented towards Orthodoxy. Protestant churches are not taken into account at all.
n No church can rent a public auditorium without the government’s consent.
n To pray, to take communion or to read the Bible in private homes a group of people more than 3 (i.e. home groups, your own family) must require prior permission from local authorities.
n No church can have a service in its own building without obtaining a prior permission.
n No church can have any activity in another town or village (i.e. churches’ activities are restricted only to the place where they are registered).
n Meetings without prior written permission are only allowed at crematories, graveyards, pilgrimage sites and officially authorised church buildings by the state.
n Street evangelism is illegal without an obtained permission in each case.
n It is practically impossible to register a new church, thus making it ‘illegal’ from the very start. A new church must have over 20 people and have a special public auditorium building for it to be registered (i.e. registration impossible for village churches).
n Being a part of unregistered church leadership is penalized by up to 2 years of imprisonment.
n A Church can be closed if it is given 2 warnings by the state in 12 months.
Any violation of these laws is seriously punished
(For the last 12 months 4 churches have been closed. Pastors and leaders of various denominations are being fined and imprisoned
n Officially Registered Religious Communities in Belarus: Orthodox – 1351; Roman Catholic – 439; Protestant – 966; Muslim – 27; Jewish – 24.
n Since 1990, the number of Protestant congregations, registered and unregistered, has more than doubled.
n Publications of anti-Protestant articles, ‘anti- sectarian’ programmes on Belarusian TV, Belarusian Orthodox Church sells openly anti-Catholic and Anti-Semitic literature.
n The Ministry of Education approved the textbook for schools on the subject "Man, Society, and State," which labels Protestants as "sects". They claim the word "sect" is a "scientific" word, and therefore it does not label Protestants as antisocial.
n "I want the Orthodox Church to be an institution of our state and one of its main supporters." "Some members of the opposition, instigated by foreign minions, make provocative suggestions about narrowing the sphere of activities of traditional religions, primarily the Orthodox Church, for the benefit of various sects and religions that are nontraditional in this country.“
President Lukashenko (professing ‘Orthodox atheist’), October 2004
Every person has something dear and important for him, something substantial for his life, like food or water. If one takes away the land from peasant, or deprives the writer or poet of possibility to write, or deprives the believers of the right to offer prayers?
During year 2006 a lot of people and communities in Belarus were denied their properties, premises, rights for existence. Among them we can mention a number of NGOs, the Union of Belarusian Writers, the Union of Poles, church communities. Politically active people are imprisoned after false charges.
Who will be the next?
We are representatives of anti-totalitarian Movement in Belarus. We don’t belong to “New Life” church, we are not Polish minority in Belarus, we are not Belarusian writers. We are just a group of civil society activists. We would like to support those who suffer and resist today, because tomorrow we need somebody who will support us.
29 of September 2006 Minsk city executive committee decided to dispossess the church “New Life” of its building and land which this church purchased in year 2001. Minsk Economic Court ruled to sell the building to Minsk city executive committee for USD 17,000 and vacate premises by October 8.
Christians bought this building of former cow-shed and turned it into their home, where they can apply to the God, a home which is of particular sense for them. State bodies which take away this building deprive those people of the most important things, more important for the Christian than food and water.
On the 6th of October the parishioners of the church started the protest against actions of Minsk city executive committee, an indefinite fasting hunger strike. They are ready to continue hunger strike until the authorities would not return the church building to believers. “New Life” has been supported by believers from other denominations and just by civil society activists. Today 212 people participate in hunger strike.
Their demands are:
– to abolish the decision of Minsk City executive Committee about deprivation of the church “New Life” of the land and building;
– to permit the believers to use this building for religious purposes.
Note: Belarusian physicians rejected to visit the participants of the hunger strike, and agreed to make one visit only under condition that their passport data will be registered. Doctors referred to the instruction of the Minsk City authorities, and now people are denied medical assistance and medical control except critical cases.
We call for support and solidarity of all who are indifferent to people’s rights for normal human life. This action of Christians should be noticed by society and the authorities.
Please, send your support letters or other solidarity expressions to:
The church “New Life”,
To e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Your are also welcome to send your opinions or protests to:
Embassies of the Republic of Belarus
Address: 03225 Vilnius-6, Mingauga, 13
Fax: (8 10 3705) 2 66 22 12
Address: ul. Wiertnicza 58, 02-952 Warszawa, Polska
Address: Herserudsvдgen 5 A, 4th floor
S-181 34 Lidingц
Fax: (+46) (8) 7315746
Committee on religious affairs by the Council of Ministries of Belarus
Kommunisticheskaya str., 11, 220029 Minsk
(017) 284 63 44
The Department on religious and national affairs by Minsk city executive committee
Pl.Svabody, 13, 220030 Minsk, (017) 203 85 77
Some words about the history of the issue:
On April 17, 2006 New Life church received a statement, in which it is written that the Minsk Economic Court has started a case to force an agreement to sell the building of New Life church that belongs to it according to ownership rights and is located in Minsk, Kovaleva street 72.
The case has been started because of a petition of one of the departments of the Minsk City Executive Council that wants to force the church to sell its building for 37,581,476 Belarusian rubles, which makes around $17,000 USD (depending on the exchange rate).
The building that used to be an ex-cow barn, was purchased by the church in 2001. The cow-barn at that time was nothing else but a garbage heap and the church’s members had to work there a lot and invest lots of finances into this building to clean it and make the territory there look nice. According to the results of the building’s testing done in the second half of 2005, the current tear and wear of the building is no more than 19%.
Now the building of the former cow barn is a completely renovated spacious and bright facility, suitable for religious services (the main sanctuary seats up to 1500 people) and there is a separate room for children’s Sunday school as well. The total footage of the building is 1,471 square meters (15,833.71 square feet).
The purchase of this building was an obliged measure by itself, since from 1999 the church was denied the right to rent facilities for religious purposes in the city of Minsk.
The church wrote many times to all the local executive councils of Minsk petitioning for the right to hold religious services on their territory, but all of them without any exception sent in their denials.
3 times the church sent letters to the President of the Republic of Belarus, signed by over a thousand Christians. Correspondence with other state authorities made up for 4 volumes. As the result, everything came down to either the petitions being left unanswered, or the Religious Department of the Minsk City Executive Council would write on the behalf of all other governmental bodies – and the answer would always be negative.
Right after the purchase of the building the church appealed many times to the Committee of Architecture and Building of the Minsk City Executive Council and did receive necessary agreements signed by the Head of the Committee of Architecture and Building Mister Chadovich (letter # 14-07-/07-17 dated on 17.07.2003), by the Chairman of Architectural Committee of City Building and Landscaping of the Minsk City Executive Council, the chief architect of Minsk Mister Belogortsev, (letter # 14-02-2832 dated on 17.09.2004).
Nevertheless, those agreements then were terminated “…on the basis of the written conclusion of the Religious Department of the Minsk City Executive Council (letters # 1402-3774 dated on 22.12.2003, # 14-02-2967 dated on 06.10.2004). That is, instead of facilitating the church’s activities within the framework of the Law, it was the Religious Department of the Minsk City Executive Council that initiated this real confrontation between the church and the state by interfering into activities of other departments.
In August of 2005 the Minsk City Executive Council made the decision to confiscate the church’s land of 1.62 hectares (over 4 acres) due to “usage that is not according to the land’s purpose”. The point is that in the year of 2001 this piece of land was not included into the territory of the Minsk City limits and its purpose then was for cow barn usage. But from 2004 it has been the territory of Minsk. Many requests made by the church faced resistance by the same Religious Department of the Minsk City Executive Council which led to a really bizarre situation: the land’s purpose was still to breed cows there – but that IS forbidden within the city limits of Minsk! In other words, if the church does not breed cows there – then the land will not be used according to its designated purpose, but in the case it does breed cows there – the church will break the norms that forbid breeding of cows in Minsk!
In light of this situation the Minsk City Executive Council’s accusations of using the land “not according to its purpose” were quite absurd. The church asked the Minsk City Mayor Pavlov for explanations, but instead of explanations the Mayor sent in a police detachment, and the church administrator was afterwards fined for $2000 USD under the false claims of organizing an illegal religious service.
In this situation the general meeting of the church members made the decision to go see the Mayor Pavlov. The Minsk City Executive Council was officially notified about it. In return the church’s leadership was called in first to the Minsk City Police Headquarters and threatened with an arrest, and when that had no result, the pastor, administrator and the lawyer were invited to the Police Deputy Minister General Philistovich. The general gave his word that in case the church refuses to go to the Mayor, he will personally look into the problem and facilitate its solution.
The visit to the Mayor was cancelled one hour before the set time. But the general decided to insure himself just in case – in front of the Minsk City Executive Council there were stationed 8 buses with riot police.
The solving of the church’s problems according to “the General’s way”, cost the church 2 more court rulings against its administrator and then he was fined for over $6000 USD, in one case as “the organizer of an illegal religious service” and then for “participating in an illegal religious service”.
The basis for qualifying those religious services as illegal ones was the authorities’ refusal to sanction services in the church’s own building due to “the wrong purpose of its usage”. Though in the 25th Chapter of the Religious Law it is directly stated that holding of religious services in non-religious buildings is possible after receiving of permission from local authorities.
The illegal refusal of the authorities to allow services in the church’s building served as the reason due to which the church received 5 warnings by the Minsk City Executive Council. In accordance with the current Law only 3 warnings are necessary to liquidate a church.
The church filed a petition against the illegal decision of the Minsk City Executive Council to confiscate its land due to “usage not according to its purpose”. Nevertheless, the Economic Court of the Minsk City supported the Minsk City Executive Council. On 27.10.2005 there was made a decision in which the court stated that “usage not according to the purpose” means … an illegal building process of the church’s facility. But still in the same court’s ruling it is stated that the building process took no place at all since there were carried out works of “modernization of the church’s building within its limits”.
There were documents shown in the court that support the fact that due to the authorities’ denial to give necessary permissions and still the church acting in full accordance to the legislation, instead of building a new facility the church carried out works of repairing the existing one with no additions and within its limits. The 65th Chapter of “Architectural, City and Building Activity in the Republic of Belarus”, it is directly stated that “the owner is obligated to keep his property in proper technical condition”, as well as the 211th Chapter of the Civil Codex of the Republic of Belarus which states that “burden of property maintenance rests upon the owner thereof”. That is, the church as the building’s owner was simply obligated to repair (or modernize) it, and then the church was deprived of its land for keeping the Law’s requirement.
Meanwhile, not being able to find a norm in the current legislation, the court made mention of the law that lost its power 2 years ago! That is, the court made its ruling based not upon a law, but upon a historic document.
The church twice tried to challenge this illegal decision but was denied with formal reasons.
The Minsk City Executive Council stated many times that the land, on which the church’s building is located is planned to be given for different purposes. Nevertheless, in the above mentioned court ruling it is stated that the only document that the Minsk City Executive Council provided to the court concerning any building plans was a project of a detailed plan of complex reconstruction of Suharevo village dated by 1999 and done by the Minsk Project Institution. When asked by the judge how close this project is to being carried out, the Minsk City Executive Council’s representative stated that now the Minsk City Executive Council “has totally different plans for this land” (as recorded in the court’s protocol). The project of the plan and also any “other plans” are not legal documents that would not allow to keep the church’s building on its land.
Besides this, in 2004 the Minsk Project Institution carried out works of documental allocating of New Life church’s building which was confirmed by proper documentation.
At the present the church presented to the Minsk City Executive Council its project to build a new, beautiful and modern building, but received in return … another notice of court appointment.
After the illegal confiscation of the land the authorities are now trying to confiscate the church’s building. The case is going to be viewed again by the same Judge, Mister Karamyshev. That is, now, the Minsk City Executive Council is using the court to force the church to sell its building of 1,471 square meters (15,833.71 square feet) for $17000 USD, that is for $11 USD per a square meter. This price is at least 100 times less then an average price offered per a square meter now for city property. For $17,000 USD now in Minsk one can buy no more than one room in an apartment with a shared kitchen.
The wording of the question itself is hard to comprehend – the forceful exchange of a newly renovated building with a total footage of 1,471 square meters (15,833.71 square feet) for one room in an apartment with a shared kitchen!
Nonetheless, the court has accepted the Minsk City Executive Council’s petition and has scheduled a court hearing