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Forum18 – The pastor of the Minsk-based Belarusian Evangelical Church, whose legal status was liquidated by Minsk City Court on 20 September, has pledged that his church will continue to meet for worship, despite the fact that the country’s restrictive 2002 religion law declares that without state registration religious communities may not operate legally. “They could fine us for gathering – but we have no other option,” Pastor Ernst Sabilo told Forum 18 News Service from Minsk on 27 September. “I didn’t have good relations with the Soviet authorities either.” He said he intends to appeal the court decision to the Supreme Court. The liquidation came one month after the same court deprived the Belarusian Evangelical Reformed Church of its legal status.

Under the 2002 religion law, religious communities which held state registration prior to the law’s adoption were obliged to bring their activities in line with it and re-register by 16 November 2004. A whole range of other religious communities which failed to gain re-registration by the deadline remain in legal limbo, Forum 18 has found.

Pastor Sabilo – who spent 13 years in a Soviet prison camp after being convicted in 1951 for “speaking about my religious convictions and the political injustice of Soviet power” – has tried in vain to re-register his church. An 18 July hearing at Minsk City Court adjourned the liquidation of the church for two months when it emerged that the city’s executive committee had insufficiently assisted the 60-strong Belarusian-speaking community to re-register (see F18News 28 July 2005 <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=619>). This apparent concern for the church turned out to be false, however, Pastor Sabilo told Forum 18. “They deceived me – when I rang the court the following week the judge said that the authorities were not actually obliged to do anything at all.”

The reason for the church’s liquidation – its lack of state-approved, non-residential worship premises as required by the 2002 law – proved insurmountable, he said. “We put adverts explaining our predicament in the newspapers but no one responded.” The church now faces court fees of 127,500 Belarusian roubles (376 Norwegian kroner, 48 Euros or 58 US dollars), Sabilo told Forum 18. “That’s more than half my pension.”

Similarly continuing to meet “underground” in the wake of its 22 August liquidation is the Belarusian Evangelical Reformed Church, its pastor told Forum 18 on 27 September. “It’s dangerous as they could levy fines as high as 2000 US dollars [13,086 Norwegian kroner or 1,663 Euros],” remarked Lyavon Lipen. “We don’t have that sort of money.” The small Calvinist community refused to re-register, he said, “because we decided it was better for religious freedom not to recognise this [2002] law. Perhaps they would like us to re-register and sit quietly so that outsiders would see that Calvinists had accepted the law and assume everything was alright.” In particular, he pointed to the law’s failure to mention Calvinism despite its strong historical impact upon Belarus (see F18News 31 October 2003 <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=172>). “They are consciously trying to destroy the Reformed Church as testimony to the Western culture of Belarus .”

To Forum 18’s knowledge, these two religious organisations are the first to lose their legal right to function against their wishes. Following last year’s deadline for re-registration, a small number of communities belonging to a wide range of confessions – including Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Baha’i – were considered by the authorities to have “self-liquidated”. This was indeed the case as far as Forum 18 could discern (see F18News 17 November 2004 <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=454> and 1 December 2004 <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=465>). Several which did not manage to re-register before the deadline or which were initially refused have since done so (see F18News 11 May 2005 <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=558> and 12 May 2005 <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=560>)…[Go To Full Story]