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BosNewsLife – Members of the evangelical Full Gospel Union Church denomination in Belarus gathered in the capital Minsk Thursday, September 15, to protest against the government’s “religious repression” amid attempts by authorities to close down its operations, church sources said. Most protestors were expected from the embattled New Life in Minsk, one of the denomination’s 60 congregations, which human rights groups say has become a symbol of persecution endured by Christians in Belarus, a former Soviet republic US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described as “the last true dictatorship” in central Europe.

The Christians were expected to gather “along with their families, including children, outside the Minsk City Executive Council building,” said human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), which learned of the demonstration. They are protesting against a decision by city authorities to confiscate the land on which their church is located, the New Life congregation said. City authorities have reportedly refused to respond to requests from church leaders to meet and discuss the decision. The church, which numbers around 600 members, notified Mayor Michael Pavlov of their plan to assemble in Minsk Thursday, September 15.

“It is a fact that the land and building that legally belong to us is under threat of being taken away. The organized harassment and oppression of our church shows the desire of the authorities to get rid of one of the most dynamic developing protestant movements,” explained New Life in a message obtained by BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest .

“The [protesting] families are putting themselves at risk of serious repercussions by taking to the streets in this way,” CSW warned.

It was not immediately apparent, however, whether police forces and secret service agents would break up the demonstration as they did during previous political protests against president Alexander Lukashenko’s perceived authoritarian regime. But the New Life church stressed whatever action is taken it would “forgive” their persecutors.

“During the past time we have had to fight a lot for our rights. The authorities continue their pressure….But with the help of Jesus we find strength in our hearts to forgive and love our persecutors, by blessing them as it is written in the Word.”

Human rights watchers say the situation of the Full Gospel Union Church denomination is illustrative of the generally difficult situation for non-Orthodox churches in Belarus .

The difficulties 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 church,” CSW said.

However the Belarusian authorities have strongly denied human rights abuses and have suggested they only act against those undermining the country’s society.