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Forum18 – Having failed to overturn the state’s decision to confiscate its building and land, the embattled charismatic New Life Church now looks set to lose its property via the courts, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. In late November, New Life announced that it would commence monthly prayer meetings for victims of injustice on Friday 16 December.

The latest developments in the complicated story of New Life’s attempts to retain its own property for worship originated in hearings on 17 and 27 October in the Belarusian capital’s Economic (Khozyaistvenny) Court. New Life in the hearings attempted to challenge the validity of Minsk City Executive Committee’s 17 August instruction curtailing the church’s land rights and ordering the sale of its building, a disused cowshed it purchased in 2002 (see F18News 1 September 2005 The Executive Committee’s decision was based on the church’s alleged violation of Article 49, Part 4 of the Land Code, which states that rights to land may be curtailed if it is not used in accordance with its designation.

Ruling against New Life, the Economic Court maintained that the 17 August decision was valid because the church had both used the cowshed as a house of worship and modernised it without obtaining state permission to change the designation of either the building or its attached land. According to the Court’s 27 October ruling, such “modernisation” legally qualifies as “a form of reconstruction” which, in turn, requires the state’s approval under the 2003 Law on Architectural and Construction Activity.

In its appeal against the Economic Court‘s decision, posted on the church’s website on 10 November, New Life points out that the 2003 Architecture Law is no longer in force, and that, since its 2004 replacement does not mention either “modernisation” or “reconstruction,” “no legislation exists regulating the procedure for converting or modernising a building.” Even if there were evidence that construction legislation had been violated, continues the church, this would not constitute a legal basis for asserting that the land had not been used in accordance with its designation.

Also in its appeal, New Life argues that the Economic Court ignored the fact that the church is unable to use the cowshed in accordance with its designation because keeping cattle is illegal within city limits. The church adds that Minsk City Executive Committee has failed to present any legal grounds for withholding permission to change this designation. In particular, it points to the invalidity of the Committee’s reference to its 1999 plan for a new suburb in which there is “no provision for” a church on the site of the cowshed (see F18News 21 February 2005 since, as a draft, this document “has no legal significance.”

Arguably in the church’s favour, however, the Economic Court‘s verdict did note that Article 240 of the Civil Code indicates that confiscation of improperly used land and related property must be pursued via the courts – and thus may not, as in this case, be effected by order of a state department.

In the meantime, the city authorities have already begun carrying out the Executive Committee’s 17 August instruction by drawing up an estimate of the building’s value. Received by New Life on 22 November, a 5 October evaluation of the modernised cowshed claims it is currently worth 35,552,939 Belarusian roubles (107,073 Norwegian Kroner, 13,458 Euros or 15,863 US Dollars). While this is more than twice the original purchase price, a 22 November statement on New Life’s website notes that it is equivalent to less than 14 US Dollars per square metre. In its evaluation, Minsk City State Property Territorial Fund expressly states that it has not taken into account “expenditure on reconstruction carried out by the owners of the object in view of their illegal construction work.”

Found to have violated Article 65 of the Land Code due to improper land use, New Life’s Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko was fined three times the minimum wage (72,000 Belarusian roubles, 214 Norwegian Kroner, 27 Euros or 32 US Dollars) in February 2005 under Article 52 of the Administrative Violations Code. The same article sets the maximum penalty for this offence at ten times the minimum wage.

Precisely because of its lack of state-approved worship premises, New Life Church has been unable to obtain compulsory re-registration under the 2002 Religion Law. Some other religious organisations are in the same position…[Go To Full Story]