AUSTRALIA -- In Minsk Monday, some 180 Protestant Christians began a hunger strike, protesting repressive government actions against them and Belarus' lack of religious liberty. What started as a protest by 17 believers inside the New Life church is drawing support from believers all over Belarus and even beyond. This situation needs maximum exposure, and these believers need our prayers.
On 31 October 2002, Belarus' dictator President Alexandr Lukashenka put his signature of approval to Europe's most repressive religion law. Belarus' law "About Freedom of Faith and Religious Organisation", which has been compared to Stalin's 1929 decree on religious associations, became law on 16 November 2002.
Belarus' religion law makes it virtually impossible for Protestant fellowships to obtain registration. What's more, in order for a denomination to obtain registration as a legal entity, it must have at least 10 separate registered groups, of which one must have existed in 1982 – that is, at the height of Soviet repression. If the denomination cannot achieve registration then it cannot train clergy or invite foreigners to come work as staff, nor can it run schools or media.
In the Belarus capital, one Protestant church's battle with the authorities for their right to worship the LORD is coming to a dreadful climax. The more than 1,000-member strong New Life church in Minsk has been denied registration and obstructed at every turn as it has tried to rent a meeting place. The church purchased a property in 2002 but has faced constant obstruction and harassment as it has renovated and met for worship.
Forum 18 describes the building as "a spacious, modern barn-like structure." The authorities contested that as the building was technically a "cowshed" the church would be banned from using it for anything other than its official, designated purpose – sheltering cows. (It must be noted, that while this structure is officially designated a cowshed, the land is now zoned residential and it is therefore not permissible to keep cows on the property.) Over the past years Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko has received multiple fines for alleged violation of the Land Code (for worshipping God in a cowshed), while church administrator Vasily Yurevich has been threatened with prosecution for organising illegal worship (prayer, singing and Bible teaching without state sanction).
On 17 August 2005 the Minsk City Administrative Committee (MCAC) ordered the sale of the property. New Life church challenged the ruling, but on 27 October 2005 Minsk's Economic Court validated the MCAC's order. At the same time, the state refused to change the building's designation to that of a house of worship and determined rather to confiscate the property.
Forum 18 reports that on 21 July 2006 Minsk City Economic Court endorsed the forced sale of New Life's property. Aleksandr Kazyatnikov of Minsk Territorial State Property Fund told Forum 18 that his department transferred the money to New Life's bank account on Monday 25 September. The church says the property is worth about 35 times the sum the authorities transferred into New Life's account. The church was told to vacate the premises before 8 October.
New Life has been informed that the Minsk Property Fund had given the New Life property over onto the balance of the local Apartment Servicing Agency of Moscow district Minsk. The authorities only require now that New Life sign the act of giving over the building. Until the act of giving over has been signed, the church remains the legal owner of the property. According to New Life's lawyer, Sergi Lukanin, the Minsk Property Fund has been dealing with the building illegally. The church is refusing to sign the documents and give over the property. They say they will not relinquish their building voluntarily.
Hunger Strike Begins
On Friday 6 October, seventeen New Life members moved into the New Life property and commenced a "fast-strike" (hunger strike) in protest of the government action against the church. A convoy of trucks and trailers, including a bulldozer, menaced the property for some time and then left.
As word has spread, believers from across Belarus – from Zhodzina, Mazyr, Stouptsy, Dziarzhynsk, Brest – have risen to show solidarity with New Life church. Many have traveled to Minsk to support the believers, often staying overnight in the property with the hunger strikers. On Monday 9 October, 500 believers attended a prayer service for New Life church. On Tuesday 10 October, another 17 New Life member joined the hunger strike in the New Life property.
By 10 October, 132 New Life believers in the New Life property on hunger strike for their religious liberty. Doctors and nurses from Minsk hospital #2 attended the scene on 11 October and one New Life member, a 35 year-old man, was taken to hospital with health problems. However, Charter 97 reports that after the visit, the healthcare committee was summoned to the Minsk State Executive Committee. When the medicos returned the next day they informed the church that it would be their last visit and that in the event of an emergency the believers should simply call for an ambulance. A doctor confirmed that the decision was made by high rank officials. Priest Siargey Lukanin is concerned about the "grave health condition of the people who have been on hunger strike from its first day, [especially] because acute viral hepatitis was suspected."
On 13 October, Charter 97 reported that there were 214 New Life believers in the New Life property on hunger-strike for their religious liberty. OSCE representative Fioan Feizer visited the New Life church that day, as did US Embassy representatives Laura Jordan and Nathan Lein.
Charter 97 reported on 16 October that 180 New Life believers were in the New Life building continuing their hunger strike. One protester who has been without food since day one is Uladzimir Matskevich, the head of the organisational committee of the Belarusian Christian Democratic party. Charter 97 quotes him as telling Radio Svaboda, "We are keeping cheerful. People understand more and more that the situation is complicated, that some urgent actions are possible, and we are getting ready for them. We are also getting ready for the situation to last for many months, and we know what to do in this situation as well. People are taking part in the protest more and more consciously. The first impulse, enthusiasm that have brought people here, with the time are turning into awareness of what is happening and at which frontline we are. That is why I think that such dynamics of the evolution of people's moods and expectations is very natural, very reasonable."
Charter 97 also reports: "Yesterday [Sunday 15 October] several persons arrived from Pastavy and Navapolatsk. More than a thousand of people have held a common prayer service. People were praying for the future of all Christians of Belarus. Today believers are waiting for guests from the Russian city of Pskov."
As the hunger strike enters its 11th day (17 Oct) the situation grows critical. Amongst the hunger strikers are some senior citizens who have given up both food and water. Charter 97 press centre is following the situation closely and providing regular updates.
Viktoria Medvedeva, a New Life hunger striker spoke to Associated Press from her mattress in the New Life property: "I am ready to starve until the authorities return our church." New Life pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko is both committed and concerned: "They are treating us worse than in Communist times. We are ready for the worst – a forcible occupation of the building."
Church Seeking Permission for a Public Rally
New Life has petitioned the authorities for permission to hold a public meeting in Minsk's Bangalore Square on Saturday 21 October. They wish to raise community awareness of the problems faced by Protestants in Belarus.
Lukashenka's Battle to Maintain Isolation, Ignorance, and Fear
President Lukashenka's Belarus is surrounded on three sides by pro-West liberal states: to the south there is Ukraine, the home of the "Orange Revolution"; to the north there is Lithuania and Latvia. But the greatest threat comes from the west – from reform-agitating Poland.
Belarus is home to around 400,000 ethnic Poles. They live mostly in the Hrodna (Grondo) region of far-west Belarus, a region that was part of Poland until it was annexed by the Soviets in World War Two.
Forum 18 reported recently that Belarusian authorities have refused to renew visas for 12 Polish Catholic priests and nuns. While the Dean of Grodno's Catholic Cathedral complained that "No reasons whatsoever" had been given for this refusal, it is most probable that the religious workers were refused entry simply because they are Polish. Belarusian authorities in Grondo are also enforcing a ban on Polish exchange teachers. Students in Grondo protested this with a walkout on 25 September. On 22 March, Badon-Lehr who served as Polish vice-consul in Grondo was found unconscious in his apartment. He died in hospital in Poland without regaining consciousness. Belarusian authorities are suspected of involvement in his death.
Lukashenka accuses Warsaw of trying to subvert and undermine his regime through the Polish community in Belarus. Radio Racja beams evening news and music from AM and short-wave transmitters in Poland and Lithuania to Belarus. It is funded by the Polish government. While it is not the only radio station to broadcast into Belarus, it is the only one to focus on Belarusian politics and human rights.
Over the past 18 months Lukashenka has increased his control over all Polish institutions in western Belarus. This has led to increased tensions between the two nations, resulting in strong words and the recall of diplomats. Lukashenka clearly feels threatened. Like most dictators, he knows his regime can only survive if he keeps the nation isolated, ignorant, and paralysed by fear. And the more he feels threatened, the more he will react and repress.
Law against 'Extremism'
On Wednesday 11 October a new law against "extremism" was adopted after it passed its second reading in the parliament. Russia News Information Agency (RNIA) reports: "The law defines extremism as activities aimed at the country's Constitution and its territorial integrity, coup attempts, the formation of illegal armed groups, terrorist acts, and attempts to incite racial, ethnic or religious discord."
Strengthening the KGB
Lukashenka is also increasing funding to the Belarus security services, the KGB. He has stated that as the West increases its "information aggression" against Belarus, Belarus must increase its internal security systems to counter the threat.
Opposition leader, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that the greatest obstacle faced by Belarusians has been their own apathy and fear. "We had to combat fear, total fear." He believes the apathy is departing.
Milinkevich also sees signs that the people are overcoming their fear and becoming more courageous. He cites the public protest rallies after Lukashenka's election "win". But he notes that the people's increased dissatisfaction, agitation and courage is being met head on with increased state anger, repression and violence. He told the Prague Daily Monitor that the increased repression is reflected in the expulsion of students from schools and lay-offs of employees due to their participation in opposition meeting. "This is the worst because the opposition force is becoming the force of the jobless. How can people fight for ideals and democracy when their children have nothing to eat?"
Milinkevich also spoke to RFE/RL about the need for solidarity amongst opposition forces. He should be impressed and inspired by the commitment and courage of the New Life believers, enough hopefully, to express and demonstrate solidarity with them.
Elizabeth Kendal is the Principal Researcher and Writer for the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission (WEA RLC) . This article was initially written for the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis mailing list.