BELARUS: Bailiffs, police evict Church

Source:                 www.forum18.org

Date:                      February 19, 2021


BELARUS: Bailiffs, police evict Church
https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2639
By Olga Glace, Forum 18

On 17 February, police and court bailiffs forcibly evicted New Life Full
Gospel Church from the building it has used in the capital Minsk since
2002. Some 30 bailiffs, police, and Housing Repairs and Utilities
Association officials took part in the eviction. Bailiffs used an angle
grinder to cut the door lock to gain entry.

The bailiff's enforcement order was signed by Aleksey Petrukovich. He
refused to explain to Forum 18 why the eviction happened, and why force was
used. "All the best, goodbye" he replied to questions before putting the
phone down (see below).

Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko refused to let the 30 bailiffs and other
officials enter the building, so bailiffs ordered an official to cut
through the lock on the Church's door. "After the locks were broken, this
crowd [the about 30 officials] flooded inside the church, interrupting 60
or 70 people who were praying," New Life Church Administrator Vitaly
Antonchikov told Forum 18. "The officials ordered everyone out of the
Church, threatening to detain them for 24 hours if they did not leave" (see
below).

"I am indignant. This is a hostile takeover of church property with the
excuse of official papers," Sergiy Melyanets, who witnessed the eviction
and is a member of a different Church, told Forum 18 on 18 February (see
below).

The head of the country's Full Gospel Union, Bishop Leonid Voronenko,
condemned the authorities' seizure of New Life Church. "It cannot leave me,
any believer or any sensible person indifferent," he declared on his
Facebook page on 17 February. "The Church was created by the Lord God, and
it is great insolence to lay your hands on what is of God!"

No alternative building has been offered to New Life Church, and meetings
for worship will now be held online, Antonchikov of New Life told Forum 18.
"We have a lot of people who come to church, and it is difficult to find a
building large enough for our meetings" (see below).

No official is prepared to explain why the sudden eviction happened.
Antonchikov of New Life suspects that the reason is a video by church
members protesting against violence by the regime against protestors (see
below).

Latest eviction order

On 7 December 2020 the Enforcement Department of Minsk Executive Committee
[the city administration] issued an eviction order requiring New Life
Church to vacate its building by 31 December. The Enforcement Department
threatened to use force if New Life did not obey.

New Life Church bought its building - a former cowshed on the western edge
of Minsk – in 2002. The Church converted the building into its place of
worship, turning it into a spacious, modern structure, but the authorities
have refused to change its legal designation as a cowshed.

The regime has repeatedly tried to evict the Church
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1339) and has refused to
allow the church to legalise its position by changing the building's
designation to a place of worship, or to use it for meetings for worship.

The Enforcement Department claimed it was executing an order of the Higher
Economic Court in January 2009
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1244). An unsuccessful
attempt to enforce this order took place in August 2009
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1339).

The last two serious attempts to evict the Church before December 2020 were
in April 2017 (https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2284), and in
June 2013 (https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1847).

The Secretary of the Head of the Enforcement Department refused to explain
on 18 February 2021 why the city authorities decided to evict the Church
now. She told Forum 18 that they can only explain this after a written
application for comments is approved by the Head of the Enforcement
Department.

Bailiffs arrive on 5 January

On 5 January 2021, during a meeting for prayer, court bailiffs arrived to
execute the court order. "About 200 people were praying in the building,"
New Life Church Administrator Vitaly Antonchikov told Forum 18 on 18
February.

The Church did not allow the bailiffs to enter the building, and Pastor
Vyacheslav Goncharenko was fined for refusing to obey the court order. "At
least it was a minimum fine, and that's not the biggest problem,"
Antonchikov commented.

30 bailiffs, police, other officials arrive on 17 February

On 17 February the regime then sent about of 30 officials to New Life to
enforce the eviction order: 10 bailiffs, police officers, and officials of
Minsk's Moscow District Housing Repairs and Utilities Association.

The bailiff's enforcement order, signed by Aleksey Petrukovich on 13
February (seen by Forum 18), orders New Life to leave its premises by 16
February. It warned that if it failed to do so it would be forcibly evicted
from its building at 11.00 am on 17 February. The Housing Repairs and
Utilities Association claims it owns the Church building, and that the
Church owes large amounts of unpaid tax
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2284).

Court bailiff Petrukovich refused to explain to Forum 18 on 19 February why
the eviction happened, and why force was used. "All the best, goodbye" he
replied to questions before putting the phone down.

The 17 February eviction

A video published on New Life's YouTube channel
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NvRV-0j5jjY) shows the raid from the
beginning, with people in New Life discussing whether a riot squad and
violence would be used.

Pastor Goncharenko refused to let the bailiffs and other officials enter
the building. A bailiff then accused him of violating Administrative Code
Article 23.4 ("Failure to submit to the legal instruction or demand of an
official in carrying out official duties").

Bailiffs then ordered an official to cut through the lock on the Church's
door, which he did with an angle grinder. Another official used a crowbar
to force open an internal door.

"After the locks were broken, this crowd [the about 30 officials] flooded
inside the church, interrupting 60 or 70 people who were praying,"
Antonchikov of New Life told Forum 18. "The officials ordered everyone out
of the Church, threatening to detain them for 24 hours if they did not
leave." The video shows Church members' distress at the eviction, and their
support of each other as they left.

"I am indignant. This is a hostile takeover of church property with the
excuse of official papers," Sergiy Melyanets, who witnessed the eviction
and is a member of a different Church, told Forum 18 on 18 February. "I was
told by police officers that they were legally present.".

The regime allowed New Life to remove some furniture and valuable goods,
but most of the Church's movable property remained in the building until
handed over today [19 February]. Antonchikov of New Life told Forum 18 that
the building is occupied by the authorities, and is guarded day and night
to prevent church members entering.

Why?

Alla Martynova, Deputy Head of the Executive Committee's Ideology
Department (https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2612), refused
to explain the regime's actions to Forum 18. "When I am told to comment
I'll do it," she answered on 19 February, before putting the phone down.

Neither the Head of the Executive Committee's Ideology and Youth Unit
Sergey Shendik, nor the Head of the Religious and Ethnic Affairs Department
Anna Koronevskaya answered their phones on 19 February.

Antonchikov of New Life suspects that the reason for the sudden eviction is
that New Life recorded and on 21 November 2020 posted on its YouTube
channel a video by church members protesting against the regime's violence
against protestors.

No alternative building offered to New Life

Antonchikov told Forum 18 that the regime has not offered the Church an
alternative building, and officials have only discussed the possibility of
this with the Church.

The Deputy Head of Moscow District's Housing Repairs and Utilities
Association, Maksim Tishuk, refused to answer any of Forum 18's questions
on 18 February. He told Forum 18 to "monitor the news to see what
alternatives would be offered to New Life".

Services will now be held online, Antonchikov of New Life told Forum 18.
"We have a lot of people who come to church, and it is difficult to find a
building large enough for our meetings."

Pastor Goncharenko will discuss the problem of a new building with Minsk
Executive Committee.

New Life eviction, Orthodox parish builds two churches

A disused railway carriage was located 500 metres (yards) from New Life's
building and this was used from January 2001 by a Russian Orthodox (Moscow
Patriarchate) community
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=516), without the regime
raising any questions about the railway carriage's legal status or use as a
place of worship. In November 2004 police visited the Orthodox Church
thinking it was New Life Church.

In 2008 the parish with city permission started building the Blessed
Kseniya of St Petersburg Chapel on the site. This was completed and
consecrated in 2009, and soon after building work for the main St Michael
the Archangel Church began. Its foundations were blessed in February 2012,
and the completed Church was consecrated in July 2013 according to the
parish website.

Regime's violations and threats increase since fraudulent August 2020
election

Violations of freedom of religion and interlinked freedoms have worsened
amid widespread continuing protests
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2612) against the regime's
falsification of August 2020 presidential election results, as well as the
regime's continuing targeting in 2021 of human rights defenders
(https://www.hrw.org/europe/central-asia/belarus).

Freedom of religion and belief violations have included refusal to let the
then-head of the Catholic Church in Belarus, Belarusian citizen Archbishop
Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, return to Belarus
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2597) on 31 August 2020.
(The authorities allowed the Archbishop to return only on 24 December 2020
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2627).)

On 2 September 2020, the then-Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic
Affairs, Leonid Gulyako, summarily halted the right of Catholic priest,
Polish citizen Fr Jerzy Wilk, to work as a priest at one day's notice
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2602). About 500
parishioners wrote to the Plenipotentiary asking him to withdraw his
decision, but he did not do so. Fr Wilk left Belarus in October 2020.

Forum 18 is not aware that Gulyako's successor as Plenipotentiary Aleksandr
Rumak, who took office in December 2020
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2627), has refused
permission for foreign citizens to hold religious jobs in Belarus at the
invitation of local religious organisations.

On 18 November 2020, the General Prosecutor's Office announced that it had
issued official warnings to Fr Sergei Lepin, then the head of the Synodal
Information Department of the Orthodox Church, and to the Vicar-General of
the Catholic Minsk-Mogilev Diocese Bishop Yuri Kasabutsky
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2627) about alleged
violations of the law.

On 27 November 2020, the then-Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic
Affairs, Gulyako, issued a written warning to the Orthodox Church. It
pointed to the "strict obligation" on all religious communities to abide by
Article 16 of the Constitution (which among other things bans religious
organistions which "are directed against the sovereignty of Belarus, its
constitutional system and social accord"), and Article 8 of the Religion
Law (which among other things bans the use of places of worship for "events
of a political nature, as well as speeches and calls insulting
representatives of the organs of state power, officials and individuals").

The warning also pointed out that if a religious community repeats the
"violation" within a year
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2612), the Plenipotentiary
can apply to the court for the religious community to be stripped of its
legal status (and thus its right to exist).

On 17 December 2020, the head of the Orthodox Church in Belarus,
Metropolitan Veniamin (Tupeko), wrote to Archbishop Artemy (Kishchenko) of
Grodno, informing him of the warning and instructing him to ensure the
observance in his diocese of these demands. The warning was made public on
6 January 2021, when Russian Orthodox blogger Andrei Kurayev published the
letter on his blog.

Presidential Administration blocks charitable donation

The Presidential Administration's Humanitarian Activity Department refused
to allow the Minsk Catholic Archdiocese's charity Caritas to accept foreign
money to support a project to help poor and homeless people. Caritas Minsk
described the decision on its Facebook page on 9 February as "sad news".
The project aimed to support about 700 people in need with food, as well as
plants and animals to grow for food.

The Humanitarian Activity Department - which registers all such foreign
charitable grants before local charities can receive them - does not give
reasons for any refusals.

Forum 18 tried to find out if the Humanitarian Activity Department refused
to allow Caritas Minsk to receive the foreign funds because of the
religious affiliation of the charity. It tried repeatedly to reach the
Department's director Igor Kudrevich on 19 February, but was unable to
speak to him. (END)

Full reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Belarus
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=16)

For more background, see Forum 18's Belarus religious freedom survey
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2612)

Forum 18's compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in
Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1351)

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