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Belarus: New Life Church Hunger Strike

October 17, 2006
Date: Tuesday 17 October 2006
Subj: Belarus: New Life church hunger strike.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal


BELARUS: NEW LIFE CHURCH HUNGER STRIKE

In Minsk today, some 180 Protestant Christians are on a hunger strike,
protesting repressive government actions against them and Belarus\' lack of
religious liberty. What started as a protest by 17 believers inside the New
Life church is drawing support from believers all over Belarus and even
beyond. This situation needs maximum exposure, and these believers need our
prayers.

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On 31 October 2002, Belarus\' dictator President Alexandr Lukashenka put his
signature of approval to Europe\'s most repressive religion law. Belarus\' law
"About Freedom of Faith and Religious Organisation", which has been compared
to Stalin\'s 1929 decree on religious associations, became law on 16 November
2002.

Belarus\' religion law makes it virtually impossible for Protestant
fellowships to obtain registration. What\'s more, in order for a denomination
to obtain registration as a legal entity, it must have at least 10 separate
registered groups, of which one must have existed in 1982 - that is, at the
height of Soviet repression. If the denomination cannot achieve registration
then it cannot train clergy or invite foreigners to come work as staff, nor
can it run schools or media.

In the Belarus capital, one Protestant church\'s battle with the authorities
for their right to worship the LORD is coming to a dreadful climax. The more
than 1,000-member strong New Life church in Minsk has been denied
registration and obstructed at every turn as it has tried to rent a meeting
place. The church purchased a property in 2002 but has faced constant
obstruction and harassment as it has renovated and met for worship.

Forum 18 (http://www.forum18.org ) describes the building as "a spacious,
modern barn-like structure" (Link 1) (There is a link to "Charter 97" photos
at the end of this posting.) The authorities contested that as the building
was technically a "cowshed" the church would be banned from using it for
anything other than its official, designated purpose - sheltering cows. (It
must be noted, that while this structure is officially designated a cowshed,
the land is now zoned residential and it is therefore not permissible to
keep cows on the property.) Over the past years Pastor Vyacheslav
Goncharenko has received multiple fines for alleged violation of the Land
Code (for worshipping God in a cowshed), while church administrator Vasily
Yurevich has been threatened with prosecution for organising illegal worship
(prayer, singing and Bible teaching without state sanction).

On 17 August 2005 the Minsk City Administrative Committee (MCAC) ordered the
sale of the property. New Life church challenged the ruling, but on 27
October 2005 Minsk\'s Economic Court validated the MCAC\'s order. At the same
time, the state refused to change the building\'s designation to that of a
house of worship and determined rather to confiscate the property.

Forum 18 reports that on 21 July 2006 Minsk City Economic Court endorsed the
forced sale of New Life\'s property. Aleksandr Kazyatnikov of Minsk
Territorial State Property Fund told Forum 18 that his department
transferred the money to New Life\'s bank account on Monday 25 September. The
church says the property is worth about 35 times the sum the authorities
transferred into New Life\'s account. The church was told to vacate the
premises before 8 October.

New Life has been informed that the Minsk Property Fund had given the New
Life property over onto the balance of the local Apartment Servicing Agency
of Moscow district Minsk. The authorities only require now that New Life
sign the act of giving over the building. Until the act of giving over has
been signed, the church remains the legal owner of the property. According
to New Life\'s lawyer, Sergi Lukanin, the Minsk Property Fund has been
dealing with the building illegally. The church is refusing to sign the
documents and give over the property. They say they will not relinquish
their building voluntarily.

HUNGER STRIKE BEGINS

On Friday 6 October, seventeen New Life members moved into the New Life
property and commenced a "fast-strike" (hunger strike) in protest of the
government action against the church. A convoy of trucks and trailers,
including a bulldozer, menaced the property for some time and then left.

As word has spread, believers from across Belarus - from Zhodzina, Mazyr,
Stouptsy, Dziarzhynsk, Brest - have risen to show solidarity with New Life
church. Many have traveled to Minsk to support the believers, often staying
overnight in the property with the hunger strikers. On Monday 9 October, 500
believers attended a prayer service for New Life church. On Tuesday 10
October, another 17 New Life member joined the hunger strike in the New Life
property.

By 10 October, 132 New Life believers in the New Life property on hunger
strike for their religious liberty. (Link 2) Doctors and nurses from Minsk
hospital #2 attended the scene on 11 October and one New Life member, a 35
year-old man, was taken to hospital with health problems. However, Charter
97 reports that after the visit, the healthcare committee was summoned to
the Minsk State Executive Committee. When the medicos returned the next day
they informed the church that it would be their last visit and that in the
event of an emergency the believers should simply call for an ambulance. A
doctor confirmed that the decision was made by high rank officials. Priest
Siargey Lukanin is concerned about the "grave health condition of the people
who have been on hunger strike from its first day, [especially] because
acute viral hepatitis was suspected." (Link 3)

On 13 October, Charter 97 reported that there were 214 New Life believers in
the New Life property on hunger-strike for their religious liberty. OSCE
representative Fioan Feizer visited the New Life church that day, as did US
Embassy representatives Laura Jordan and Nathan Lein.

Charter 97 reported on 16 October that 180 New Life believers were in the
New Life building continuing their hunger strike. One protester who has been
without food since day one is Uladzimir Matskevich, the head of the
organisational committee of the Belarusian Christian Democratic party.
Charter 97 quotes him as telling Radio Svaboda, "We are keeping cheerful.
People understand more and more that the situation is complicated, that some
urgent actions are possible, and we are getting ready for them. We are also
getting ready for the situation to last for many months, and we know what to
do in this situation as well. People are taking part in the protest more and
more consciously. The first impulse, enthusiasm that have brought people
here, with the time are turning into awareness of what is happening and at
which frontline we are. That is why I think that such dynamics of the
evolution of people\'s moods and expectations is very natural, very
reasonable." (Link 4)

Charter 97 also reports: "Yesterday [Sunday 15 October] several persons
arrived from Pastavy and Navapolatsk. More than a thousand of people have
held a common prayer service. People were praying for the future of all
Christians of Belarus. Today believers are waiting for guests from the
Russian city of Pskov." (Link 4)

As the hunger strike enters its 11th day (17 Oct) the situation grows
critical. Amongst the hunger strikers are some senior citizens who have
given up both food and water. Charter 97 press centre
(http://www.charter97.org/eng/news) is following the situation closely and
providing regular updates.

Viktoria Medvedeva, a New Life hunger striker spoke to Associated Press from
her mattress in the New Life property: "I am ready to starve until the
authorities return our church." New Life pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko is
both committed and concerned: "They are treating us worse than in Communist
times. We are ready for the worst - a forcible occupation of the building."
(Link 5)

CHURCH SEEKING PERMISSION FOR A PUBLIC RALLY

New Life has petitioned the authorities for permission to hold a public
meeting in Minsk\'s Bangalore Square on Saturday 21 October. They wish to
raise community awareness of the problems faced by Protestants in Belarus.

-----------------------------------------
LUKASHENKA\'S BATTLE TO MAINTAIN ISOLATION, IGNORANCE AND FEAR
-----------------------------------------

President Lukashenka\'s Belarus is surrounded on three sides by pro-West
liberal states: to the south there is Ukraine, the home of the "Orange
Revolution"; to the north there is Lithuania and Latvia. But the greatest
threat comes from the west - from reform-agitating Poland.

Belarus is home to around 400,000 ethnic Poles. They live mostly in the
Hrodna (Grondo) region of far-west Belarus, a region that was part of Poland
until it was annexed by the Soviets in World War Two.

Forum 18 reported recently that Belarusian authorities have refused to renew
visas for 12 Polish Catholic priests and nuns. While the Dean of Grodno\'s
Catholic Cathedral complained that "No reasons whatsoever" had been given
for this refusal, it is most probable that the religious workers were
refused entry simply because they are Polish. Belarusian authorities in
Grondo are also enforcing a ban on Polish exchange teachers. Students in
Grondo protested this with a walkout on 25 September. On 22 March,
Badon-Lehr who served as Polish vice-consul in Grondo was found unconscious
in his apartment. He died in hospital in Poland without regaining
consciousness. Belarusian authorities are suspected of involvement in his
death.

Lukashenka accuses Warsaw of trying to subvert and undermine his regime
through the Polish community in Belarus. Radio Racja beams evening news and
music from AM and short-wave transmitters in Poland and Lithuania to
Belarus. It is funded by the Polish government. While it is not the only
radio station to broadcast into Belarus, it is the only one to focus on
Belarusian politics and human rights.

Over the past 18 months Lukashenka has increased his control over all Polish
institutions in western Belarus. This has led to increased tensions between
the two nations, resulting in strong words and the recall of diplomats.
Lukashenka clearly feels threatened. Like most dictators, he knows his
regime can only survive if he keeps the nation isolated, ignorant, and
paralysed by fear. And the more he feels threatened, the more he will react
and repress.

LAW AGAINST \'EXTREMISM\'

On Wednesday 11 October a new law against "extremism" was adopted after it
passed its second reading in the parliament. Russia News Information Agency
(RNIA) reports: "The law defines extremism as activities aimed at the
country\'s Constitution and its territorial integrity, coup attempts, the
formation of illegal armed groups, terrorist acts, and attempts to incite
racial, ethnic or religious discord." (Link 6)

STRENGTHENING THE KGB

Lukashenka is also increasing funding to the Belarus security services, the
KGB. He has stated that as the West increases its "information aggression"
against Belarus, Belarus must increase its internal security systems to
counter the threat. (Link 7)

OVERCOMING FEAR

Opposition leader, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, told Radio Free Europe/Radio
Liberty (RFE/RL) that the greatest obstacle faced by Belarusians has been
their own apathy and fear. "We had to combat fear, total fear." He believes
the apathy is departing. (Link 8)

Milinkevich also sees signs that the people are overcoming their fear and
becoming more courageous. He cites the public protest rallies after
Lukashenka\'s election "win". But he notes that the people\'s increased
dissatisfaction, agitation and courage is being met head on with increased
state anger, repression and violence. He told the Prague Daily Monitor that
the increased repression is reflected in the expulsion of students from
schools and lay-offs of employees due to their participation in opposition
meeting. "This is the worst because the opposition force is becoming the
force of the jobless. How can people fight for ideals and democracy when
their children have nothing to eat?" (Link 9)

Milinkevich also spoke to RFE/RL about the need for solidarity amongst
opposition forces. He should be impressed and inspired by the commitment and
courage of the New Life believers, enough hopefully, to express and
demonstrate solidarity with them.

Elizabeth Kendal
rl-research@crossnet.org.au

Links

Charter 97 photographs from Tuesday 12 October 2006
http://www.charter97.org/bel/news/2006/10/12/photo

1) BELARUS: Charismatic church\'s "time has run out," official claims
By Geraldine Fagan, Forum 18 News Service
http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=851

2) 130 Belarus Protestants on Hunger Strike Over Prayer House Seizure
Created: 10.10.2006 MosNews
http://www.mosnews.com/news/2006/10/10/protstrike.shtml

3) Doctors refuse to supervise the hunger strikers. 12 Oct 2006
http://www.charter97.org/eng/news/2006/10/12/strike

4) 180 Protestants Continue Hunger Strike For 10 Days
16 Oct 2006
http://www.charter97.org/eng/news/2006/10/16/golod

5) More Protestants join protest against threatened church closure in
Belarus
The Associated Press 10 OCTOBER 2006
http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2006/10/10/europe/EU_REL_Belarus_Church_Protest.php

6) Belarus adopts law against extremism
MINSK, October 11 (RIA Novosti)
http://en.rian.ru/world/20061011/54718127.html
ALSO
Belarus parliament endorses bill on fighting extremism
11.10.2006, 21.14
http://www.itar-tass.com/eng/level2.html?NewsID=10878789&PageNum=0

7) Belarus to Strengthen Spy Agency
Thursday September 28, 2006 9:01 PM
http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/0,,-6112300,00.html

8) Milinkevich Says Belarusians Must Combat \'Total Fear\'
http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2006/10/b16f84a4-882b-447f-b341-21192f5ff65e.html

9) Belarussian opposition leader: Changes in Minsk to come from the streets
Prague, 9 Oct 2006 (CTK)
http://www.praguemonitor.com/ctk/?story_id=w43064i20061010;story=Belarussian-opposition-leader-Changes-in-Minsk-to-come-from-the-streets
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