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Forum18 – In what its priest has described to Forum 18 News Service as “the crudest violation of religious freedom,” state officials in the south-western region of Brest are refusing to register a village parish in conflict with the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese, imposing fines for worship in private homes on four occasions in early 2005. “But we will carry on praying no matter what the state does,” the priest, Fr Ioann Grudnitsky, told Forum 18 on 28 October.

Fr Ioann’s parish was part of the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese but, following escalating disputes with state authorities and the diocese, in July the 120-strong parish of SS Sophia and her Three Daughters, Faith, Hope and Charity in the village of Ruzhany joined the US-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA) under Bishop Agafangel (Pashkovsky) of Odessa and Tavriya in Ukraine. According to the Ukrainian diocese’s website, services are currently not held by the ROCA’s four parishes in Belarus due to the state’s refusal to register them. Non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox Christian communities can only gain Belarusian state registration if they have the approval of a local Moscow Patriarchate bishop (see F18News 6 November 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=177).

Under the restrictive 2002 religion law, which was strongly backed by the Belarusian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), state registration is compulsory for all religious communities and unregistered religious activity is illegal – against international human rights standards. Belarus ‘ registration policy has been condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee (see F18News 4 November 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=682).

Earlier this year the second ROCA priest in Belarus , Fr Leonid Plyats, was interrogated by local officials in Minsk region about his “illegal religious activity” (see F18News 6 June 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=577).

Speaking to Forum 18 on 27 October, parish warden Lyubov Isakova explained that her community stopped attending the Moscow Patriarchate church of SS Peter and Paul almost three years ago in 2002, due to suspicion that its then parish priest had stolen a significant number of its icons. “We don’t trust the new priest [Fr Aleksandr Sen] either,” she added, maintaining that another valuable icon – bearing Second World War bullet holes – had been recently removed for renovation “but a completely different one came back.” In a 24 December 2004 letter to the Ruzhany parishioners, Brest region’s public prosecutor agrees that the criminal case into the disappearance of church plate and icons from SS Peter and Paul church between 1991 and 2002 was “not sufficiently investigated” before its closure by Pruzhany district police in July 2004. The letter announces that the case has now been re-opened and will be conducted by the regional authorities.

Another reason for the parishioners’ distrust of Fr Sen is that, before being transferred from Brest to Ruzhany in 2002, he was dismissed as assistant priest by Fr Ioann Grudnitsky (then a priest in Brest) after Fr Sen had protested against the dismissal of his relative, the Brest parish’s treasurer, under whom over three million Belarusian Roubles (9,250 Norwegian Kroner, 1,188 Euros or 1,394 US Dollars) were allegedly unaccounted for. Bishop Ioann (Khoma) of Brest and Kobrin responded to Fr Sen’s dismissal by retiring Fr Ioann Grudnitsky from parish duties in late 2002. Fr Ioann disputes the validity of both this and the decision to defrock him.

On 18 January Ruzhany Village Council refused a parishioner of Fr Ioann’s, Liliya Yukhnovskaya, the right to host services in her own home on the grounds that it did not comply with fire safety norms…[Go To Full Story]