BELARUS: One week left for charismatic church?
In Belarus, “If a building is not a designated house of worship, advance state permission is needed for religious activity, and anti-Protestant officials refuse to grant it.” This means if you rent, or buy a building zoned as something else you will have a hard time getting the paperwork necessary to change the zoning and will find yourself evicted from your own property. Just ask New Life Church of Minsk. They bought a cowshed in 2002 and State authorities refuse to allow this 1,000 member church change the designation. Instead they have fined them repeatedly and have given them until December 5th to voluntarily vacate their property before being forcibly removed.
By Geraldine Fagan
11/28/2012 Belarus (Forum 18) – Yesterday (27 November) New Life Pentecostal Church received notice that it must voluntarily vacate its building by 5 December or else be forcibly evicted. “We are treating this very seriously,” Sergei Lukanin, New Life member and lawyer, remarked to Forum 18 News Service from the Belarusian capital Minsk on 28 November. “There will be round-the-clock prayer in our building and special evening prayer meetings to ask the Lord to defend our building and to guide our response to the authorities.”
Deputy Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, Vladimir Lameko, refused absolutely to discuss the proposed eviction of New Life Church with Forum 18 on 28 November.
New Life is famous for its 10-year fight to keep control of its private church property, a renovated cow barn on the edge of Minsk. The city authorities have blocked the 1000-strong congregation’s efforts to use the building in line with Belarusian law, thereby stripping its rights to the property. A hunger strike by New Life members, visits by foreign diplomats and messages of support from around the world prevented the state from seizing the building in 2006.
Seen by Forum 18, the 27 November eviction notice instructs New Life Church to prepare keys to its building for a hand-over to state representatives at 11am on 5 December. It also orders the local housing authority of Minsk’s Moscow District to provide “vehicles, manpower and everything necessary to evict the debtor” in case of forced eviction. Signed by court executor Olga Shcherbovich of Minsk’s Higher Economic Court, the notice implements the Court’s eviction order of 23 October 2012.
Change of course?
There has been no attempt to evict New Life since August 2009, church lawyer Lukanin confirmed to Forum 18. “The court executors haven’t touched us since then – this means no political decision was taken until now.”
Lukanin believes the development is connected with the 16 November appointment of Valery Vakulchik as new head of the KGB (the secret police has not changed its name since the Soviet era), and the eviction of human rights organisation Vesna (“Spring”) from its Minsk premises on 26 November.
New Life has indeed largely been left alone since mid-2009. Visiting the church in late December 2010, Forum 18 found members able to organise Christmas festivities with the aid of portable generators (the authorities switched off the building’s electricity in 2004). The church’s high-profile civil disobedience campaign in 2006 appeared to push the authorities back from confrontation. Also in late 2010, Minsk Pentecostal Pastor Antoni Bokun – whose church has also faced difficulties – remarked to Forum 18 that New Life had become “the only territory in the country where Belarusian laws don’t operate”.
Purchased in 2002, New Life’s building – a spacious, modern barn-like structure on the edge of Minsk – is legally still a cowshed. The state authorities have repeatedly refused to allow the church to legalise its position by changing the building’s designation to a house of worship, or to use it for services. The congregation’s defiant worship at the building has resulted in multiple large fines in addition to its formal confiscation.
The congregation has nowhere else to meet, having earlier been barred from public facilities by district administrations throughout Minsk. It toyed with the idea of keeping several cows at the church so as to comply with the building’s designation, but animal husbandry is now banned in Minsk.
A high point in New Life’s battle with the Minsk authorities came in October 2006, when officials dispatched a bulldozer with the apparent intention of razing the charismatic congregation’s building. The church embarked on a high-profile hunger strike in its defence.
After letters of support from all over the world began pouring in to President Lukashenko, the church’s pastor, Vyacheslav Goncharenko, was invited to see a top-ranking presidential administration official, Oleg Proleskovsky, who hinted that a legal resolution was possible.
Despite this, the Higher Economic Court threw out New Life’s subsequent appeal against state moves to seize its building on 13 January 2009, taking the church’s situation back to square one.
BELARUS: One week left for charismatic church?