OLSO (ABP) – An international Christian initiative that reports on threats and actions against religious freedom says after a few months of break that authorities in Belarus are once more cracking down on a Baptist group whose churches refuse on principle to register with the state as required by law.
Oslo-based Forum 18 reported Oct. 18 on conversations with leaders of the Baptist Council of Churches, who claim their right to worship freely is protected by the Belarus constitution. Pastor Aleksei Abramovich of a church in Zhodino near the capital city in Minsk was fined in late September for unregistered religious activity illegal under a restrictive religion law adopted in 2002.
According to the U.S. State Department, the Belarus constitution provides for the equality of religions and denominations but contains language stipulating that cooperation between the state and religious organizations "is regulated with regard for their influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and country traditions of the Belarusian people." While the law on religion provides for freedom of religion in principle, U.S. officials say the government in Belarus restricts that right in practice.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom includes Belarus on a “watch list” for religious freedom violations that don’t rise to a statutory level to merit designation as a Country of Particular Concern reserved for the world’s most egregious violators of religious freedom.
Baptists in Belarus told Forum 18 that trouble began for the Zhodino congregation when police raided their Sunday worship service Aug. 14. Officers reportedly photographed, filmed and sealed the room where the church meets and confiscated religious literature.
On Sept. 20, Judge Tatyana Trotsyuk of Zhodino Court found Pastor Abramovich guilty of violating procedures for organizing or conducting a mass event or demonstration. He was fined 700,000 Belarusian rubles — the equivalent of $122 in U.S. currency and an amount local workers typically earn in several weeks of wages.
"We don't interfere with state policy,” Abramovich argued his innocence in a letter to President Aleksandr Lukashenko. “Our worship meetings are purely religious. It's not a crime if believers worship in my house."
It was the third time this year that officials raided worship services of Council of Churches' congregations, but other Protestant groups in Belarus report difficulties when trying to register, leaving them also vulnerable to raids and punishment.
The Church of God, an independent church in Zhodino, has been denied state registration several times due to difficulty in establishing a legal address. Several Jehovah’s Witness congregations have been denied registration for various reasons. Non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox congregations are also currently unable to register but keep a low profile in order not to draw attention to themselves.
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.