BELARUS: Religious freedom survey, October 2020

Source:                www.MNNonline.org

Date:                     October 21, 2020


By Olga Glace, Forum 18

Before the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of
Belarus on 2 November, Forum 18 notes continuing violations of freedom of
religion and belief and of interlinked freedoms of expression, association,
and assembly. These have worsened amid widespread continuing protests
against falsified results of the August 2020 presidential election, and
against the regime's other serious violations of the human rights of the
people it rules.

After the regime's falsification of the August 2020 presidential election
results and violence against people taking part in the ongoing protests,
public events to pray for Belarus and for violence by the regime to end
have increased. The regime has increasingly used Administrative Code
Article 23.34 ("Violation of the procedure for organising or conducting a
mass event or demonstration") against those taking part in public prayer
events. For example, Catholics organising and participating in prayer
events in the street in Minsk, Grodno, Lida, and other towns have been and
continue to be accused and fined under Article 23.34. As the Human Rights
Centre Viasna (Spring) has documented, the same charges are also brought
against people organising and participating in peaceful political protests
against the regime. Many Protestants participate in such protests (see
below).

Since 31 August, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, head of the Catholic
Church in Belarus and a Belarusian citizen, has been denied entry to his
own country. A Catholic priest, Polish citizen Fr Jerzy Wilk, had his
permission to work as a priest cancelled at one day's notice on 2 September
(see below).

Regime officials are hostile towards followers of beliefs they see as a
threat and the regime maintains a network of KGB secret police and
religious affairs officials to ensure compliance. Restrictions include:
restrictions on who can hold meetings for meetings for worship and where
they can be held; difficult or expensive permission to hold large public
events, and prosecutions of those holding smaller events; difficulty of
opening places of worship, and excessive charges for confiscated places of
worship still owned by the state; strict controls on foreign citizens who
exercise their freedom of religion and belief; denials of permission to
work to Catholic and Orthodox priests; prior compulsory censorship of
religious literature; arbitrary and unpredictable denials of religious
broadcasting; lack of a full, equal provision for conscientious objectors
to military service; and obstruction of the freedom of religion and belief
of death-row prisoners and their families (see below).

As one Belarusian Protestant commented, "they have created conditions so
you can't live by the law. We would need to close half our churches in
order to operate technically in accordance with the law".

Implementation of restrictions on freedom of religion and belief is not
uniform, as the regime appears to seek to maintain control of society.
Prosecutions are sporadic, but are sufficiently frequent and random to
encourage many religious communities to remain within the web of official
restrictions. The regime seems to want to manage down expectations of how
freedom of religion and belief can be exercised to produce static religious
communities with a minimum of confrontation. This leads to some religious
communities' expectations of how freedom of religion and belief can be
exercised being contained within an invisible ghetto of regulation. Yet
without change to both the restrictive legal framework and the attitudes of
the regime and its officials, freedom of religion and belief and other
human rights violations will continue.

Context

Belarus is located between Russia, Ukraine, and European Union member
states Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. President Aleksandr Lukashenko has
ruled the country since 1994 without free and fair elections being held. An
Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Election
Observation Mission found that November 2019 parliamentary elections "did
not meet important international standards for democratic elections. There
was an overall disregard for fundamental freedoms of assembly, association
and expression".

The OSCE was not able to observe the August 2020 presidential election.
Local human rights defenders such as the Coordination Council and others
such as Human Rights Watch stated that the regime falsified the election
results, and amid large-scale protests after the election "arbitrarily
detained thousands of people and systematically subjected hundreds to
torture and other ill- treatment".
The arbitrary and unpredictable nature of the regime's behaviour has
increased since it falsified the election results.

This is part of a longer-term pattern. Human Rights Watch's 2020 World
Report noted that the regime "continued to harass and pressure civil
society activists and independent media. Authorities denied access to
journalists at government events, arbitrarily prosecuted dozens of
journalists, and arrested peaceful environmental protesters". The country
ranks 66 out of 180 countries measured in Transparency International's 2019
Corruption Perceptions Index.

Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe. This means individuals
and communities cannot challenge denials of their human rights by bringing
cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Belarus has a population of about 9 and a half million people, around half
of whom are thought to self-identify with the Orthodox Church and in order
of magnitude smaller numbers self-identifying as Protestants, Catholics,
and non-believers. Belarusian Orthodox theologian and political scientist
Natallia Vasilevich noted in 2019 that, in comparison to other religious
communities, Protestant communities are more visible "by engaging in many
types of social activity". This makes them more likely to experience
freedom of religion and belief violations. As with other human rights, the
regime's basic approach is to - in violation of international human rights
law - make the exercise of freedom of religion and belief dependent on
state permission.

Web of restrictions

The 2002 Religion Law is central to the regime's web of restrictions on the
exercise of freedom of religion and belief. This Law specifies compulsory
state registration of all religious communities and geographical limits on
where they may exercise their freedom of religion and belief. Foreign
religious personnel invited by local religious communities require state
permission to exercise freedom of religion and belief. This stops them
leading any meetings for worship outside the one building within which the
regime allows them to lead such meetings.

All exercise of freedom of religion and belief must have prior state
permission. Religious meetings in private homes must not be either regular
or large scale. The only permitted places of worship and places where
religious literature may be sold or distributed are those designated by the
regime. All public events must have state permission and entail high fees
for the police, first aid and other public health and hygiene services.
Some communities do not attempt to hold public events or apply for state
permission for them, because of the detailed information and high costs the
regime demands.

A network of state religious affairs officials closely monitors religious
communities. The most senior such official is Plenipotentiary for Religious
and Ethnic Affairs, Leonid Gulyako (born 1 November 1949). His Office has
five publicly named senior staff, one of whom is known to work exclusively
on state restrictions on the exercise of freedom of religion and belief. In
addition, each of the country's six regions and the city administration of
the capital Minsk also employs about 20 more religious affairs officials.
Local Ideology Department officials and the KGB secret police also restrict
freedom of religion or belief.

Many decisions – especially those by the Plenipotentiary – cannot be
legally challenged. Under the Religion Law, a religious organisation found
to have violated the law must correct the alleged violation within six
months and not repeat it within a year. If it fails to do so, the
authorities may shut the organisation down (Article 37). No legal
possibility exists to challenge such warnings, despite a 2007
Constitutional Court decision highlighting this legal omission negating the
rule of law. Jehovah's Witnesses failed even in the Supreme Court to
challenge such warnings.

Restrictions on meeting

Under the Religion Law, the only communities which may "unobstructed"
exercise their freedom of religion and belief are state registered
religious communities within state-approved places of worship or other
venues (Article 25). Yet the regime obstructs the acquisition of such
places of worship by religious communities it dislikes. Officials then use
various legal tools to limit such communities.

Restrictions begin from the moment a community forms. Under the Religion
Law, all religious organisations must have state registration (Article 14).
The Law is silent on those with fewer than 20 members – the minimum for
registration. This means that new religious communities must not publicise
their existence before they have 20 committed members, but this makes it
difficult for them to attract members. This exposes meetings of new
communities the regime dislikes to the threat of state reprisals, even if
they meet in private homes.

A community requires a legal address for registration applications and
registration itself, but using a private home as a legal address is
illegal. Especially in villages, some religious communities – including
Jehovah's Witnesses and independent Pentecostals – find it difficult to
get the authorities to agree the use of a building as a legal address. This
stops registration applications being lodged.

The registration requirements break Belarus' international human rights law
obligations, as outlined in the OSCE/Venice Commission Guidelines on the
Legal Personality of Religious or Belief Communities – for example Belarus' review of a
religious community's beliefs before granting legal status to it.

Officials arbitrarily deny registration to religious communities they do
not like. Some Jehovah's Witness communities have faced repeated denials,
often for more than 10 years. These include the communities in Lida in
Grodno Region (most recent denial July 2020); Vileika in Minsk Region (most
recent denial February 2019); and Borisov in Minsk Region (most recent
denial July 2019). In all these cases Jehovah's Witnesses unsuccessfully
tried to challenge the denials.

In another example, the Pentecostal Christians of Minsk's Your Will Be Done
Church told Forum 18 that they are struggling for registration and facing
resistance from the authorities, which rejected three of their applications
in 2018. "We have been applying for the registration of our community since
2017 and have already received four denials," the church's pastor
Vyacheslav Novakovsky told Forum 18 in December 2018.

Your Will Be Done Church, previously a member congregation of the
Pentecostal Union, has more than 20 members. But as it is illegal to meet
for worship without state registration, the Church insists it will hold no
religious meetings until it can get registration. "We want to comply with
the law and gather for religious meetings without fear of raids, fines or
detentions," Pastor Novakovsky told Forum 18.

He also pointed out that the law makes no provision for how religious
communities can exercise freedom of religion or belief as they prepare for
and wait for registration applications to be processed. "Community
registration requires at least 20 believers, but if they gather they won't
sit and wait [to hold worship meetings,
Anaïs Marin, describing the abolition of Criminal Code 193-1 as "tarnished
by the adoption of article 23.88 of the Code of Administrative Offences,
introducing administrative liability instead".

As she pointed out in her May 2019 report to the General Assembly
(A/HRC/41/52): "Non-registered
organizations are still subject to administrative liability and the
notification procedure for assemblies is valid only for those taking place
in areas designated by authorities, and is often denied in practice. These
small steps, although going in the right direction, have yet to testify to
a real change in Government policies."

Similarly, Leonid Sudalenko from the Vyasna (Spring) human rights
organisation asked Forum 18: "Why can't people form religious organisations
without asking permission from the authorities? Their rights must be
respected."

The imposition of summary fines described as "particularly alarming" by
Minsk human rights defenders the Lawtrend Centre for Legal Transformation
and the Assembly of Non-governmental Democratic Organisations. They
observed that as the police and the Justice Ministry decide on guilt and
impose fines, "no court will be involved".

Officials though, claimed to be unaware of the new Administrative Code
Article 23.88. Andrei Aryaev (the Head of the Religious Department of the
Office of the regime's Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs),
and officials of the Justice Ministry and Interior Ministry all denied
knowledge of the new law. However, although claiming not to know of it
Aryaev claimed "I don't see any problems for religious organisations".
Multiple calls to Interior Ministry departments eventually gained an
admission that police can impose fines directly without court hearings. The
Interior Ministry spokesperson Olga Chemodanova would not explain to Forum
18 the purpose of the new Administrative Code Article 23.88.

"Violation of the procedure for organising or conducting a mass event or
demonstration"

Administrative Code Article 23.34 ("Violation of the procedure for
organising or conducting a mass event or demonstration") has infrequently
been used against the exercise of freedom of religion and belief in public.
This can be for activities such as sharing beliefs non-coercively, offering
religious literature, or conducting religious processions on a street.

For example, in October 2018 police in Lepel in the north-eastern Vitebsk
Region detained Baptist husband and wife Andrei and Tatyana Fokin to stop
them singing Christian songs and distributing Christian literature at the
entrance to a market. Officers took them to a police station, where they
were charged under Article 23.34 Part 3 which punishes repeat offences.

The Fokins are Council of Churches Baptists, who do not seek state
registration on principle. Church members in Lepel have run a street
library since the 1990s. On 30 October, Judge Alesya Novik of Lepel Court
found both husband and wife guilty, and fined Andrei 661.50 Belarusian
Roubles (27 base units) and his wife Tatyana 539 Belarusian Roubles (22
base units). The fines were together equivalent to about two month's
average local wages.

Similarly, in January 2019 the Supreme Court dismissed appeals by two
Jehovah's Witnesses from Rogachev, Tamara Vitkovskaya and Olga Grapova,
against being fined for sharing their beliefs with others and offering
religious publications near a local shop. They were accused of "illegal
picketing" and each fined less than a week's average local wages.

After the regime's falsification of the August 2020 presidential election
results and violence against people taking part in the ongoing protests,
public events to pray for Belarus and for violence by the regime to end
have increased. The regime has increasingly used Administrative Code
Article 23.34 ("Violation of the procedure for organising or conducting a
mass event or demonstration") against those taking part in public prayer
events. For example, Catholics organising and participating in prayer
events in the street in Minsk, Grodno, Lida, and other towns have been and
continue to be accused and fined under Article 23.34.

As the Human Rights Centre Viasna (Spring) has documented, the same charges
are also brought against people organising and participating in peaceful
political protests against the regime. Many Protestants participate in
such protests.

Large public religious events restricted

Renting publicly-owned premises for large events is difficult. The Baptist
Union was forced to cancel a planned festival it wished to hold in a Minsk
stadium in May 2019 after officials failed to respond to its request for
permission.

In January 2019 the Council of Ministers adopted Decree No. 49 "On the
procedure of payment for public security provided by police, for healthcare
services, for cleaning a venue after a public event". The Decree requires
that all permitted public event organisers - including of religious events
– must pay in advance for police, state healthcare and cleaning services.
The Decree sets the price depending on the number of participants.

Holding public events is already difficult. Many human rights and
opposition activists interpreted the Decree as a further obstruction to
public events not organised by the authorities.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference enquired whether Decree No. 49 applies to
religious events. Interior Minister Igor Shunevich responded in May 2019
that religious organisations are not subject to the Decree if their events
are held in designated places. Such places include churches, cemeteries,
crematoria, pilgrimage sites and others approved by local authorities. But
despite the letter the Council of Ministers' Decree has not been changed.

Police and local authorities continue to demand fees for events in places
not in the Interior Minister's letter, such as open air pilgrimages. At the
last minute, Greek Catholic leaders had to cancel what would have been
their 25th annual pilgrimage since 1995 from Vitebsk to Polotsk in July
2019 because of the "unaffordable" police fees. The fee demanded would have
represented one day's average pay for each of the up to 100 expected
participants, plus fees for health provision and cleaning along the route.

Religious property

Many communities without formal places of worship find it impossible to get
property redesignated so that it can legally be used for worship. Without a
designated place of worship, the legal exercise of freedom of religion and
belief requires advance state permission. Officials often refuse this
permission. Protestant communities have generally found it impossible to
get property redesignated so that it can be used for worship in line with
the law. Orthodox and Catholic communities are rarely affected, partly due
to their being more likely to occupy designated historically preserved
places of worship.

Those using private homes for meetings for worship without state permission
risk punishment under Administrative Code Article 21.16, Part 1, which
punishes improper use of residential property. Jehovah's Witness and
Council of Churches Baptist homeowners have been fined, including a Baptist
in Gomel in 2014. However, from then until 2020 fines for this "offence"
have not been imposed.

Many places of worship confiscated in the Soviet era were in the 1990s
returned to their original owners – if the communities were registered -
at the request of Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish communities.

These communities all told Forum 18 in August 2020 that only a few
historical places of worship remain in the state's possession, as their
return was not requested in the 1990s. In these cases, the state pays for
continued maintenance of the building, and the religious community which
uses the building pays a small amount as rent and for utility charges.
There is no time limit set to these agreements.

Many of these religious communities repeatedly but unsuccessfully apply for
ownership to be restored to them. The restitution process is complex, and
relies upon the local Executive Committee agreeing that the building should
be returned to its original owners. Normally this does not now happen. The
final stage in the long process is a Presidential decree transferring the
ownership of the confiscated building back to its original religious
community.

Catholic journalist Maksim Hacak suggested to Forum 18 in August 2020 that
the authorities are not now willing to transfer ownership back as "it's
always easier to blackmail the communities using property they do not own".

One such case is in Minsk, where the Catholic Church of Saints Simon and
Helena (known locally due to its brickwork as the Red Church) is facing a
large financial bill from the state, as well as just under 13,000
Belarusian Roubles a month in rent. As Red Church parish priest Fr
Stanislav Stanevsky asked independent news agency Naviny.by in July 2020:
"Why should we pay the state 13,000 Belarusian Roubles a month to pray in
our own church?"

The Red Church is a historical Catholic church built in central Minsk in
1910 and which was confiscated during the Soviet period. Catholics were
allowed to use the building again from 1990. The state still owns it, and
Minsk city authorities claim to have spent more than 5,000,000 Belarusian
Roubles restoring the Church building. However, people associated with the
Red Church told Forum 18 that the authorities did not agree the work to be
done with the parish. For example, Forum 18 was told that from at least
2015 onwards the parish has repeatedly told the authorities that the
basement regularly floods with rainwater, causing structural damage. This
is the most serious problem the building has, yet neither this nor various
other problems the parish has told the authorities of have been dealt with.

It is thought that the authorities only did the work to make the outside of
the building look good for tourists such as visitors to the 2019 European
Games, an athletics tournament held in June 2019.

Also, the parish was not told before the work how much the authorities
would charge the parish. People associated with the Red Church think that
it would take them at least 75 years to pay the authorities the current
amount they are demanding. "It looks like the state without asking the
parish decided to give us a large debt, and now demands that we pay them,"
Catholics told Forum 18.

The Red Church is an unusual case, and it is unclear why Minsk authorities
have decided to impose such an enormous financial burden on the Church. The
authorities have refused to explain their reasons. Minsk Property told
Forum 18: "Minsk Property does not give comments". Fr Yuri Sanko of the
Catholic Bishops' Conference told Forum 18 that "we are not going to take
any formal legal steps until we try to clear up the situation by
negotiation" (see below).

However, Maksim Kovalev, a lawyer from Minsk who knows the situation, told
Forum 18 that discussion of the issue since 2019 between the Catholics and
the authorities "reminds me of a ping pong game". The authorities are also,
most recently in June 2020, still refusing to transfer ownership of the Red
Church back to its original owners, the parish. On 21 July 2020,
parishioners launched a petition asking the Presidential Administration to
return ownership of the Red Church to the parish. More than 5,000 people
had signed within the first week.

Catholics in Mogilev, Grodno and Bobruisk are all trying without success to
regain ownership of their own historic churches which they already use.

Controls on foreigners

Foreigners are particularly targeted by such arbitrary and unpredictable
decisions. The regime strictly controls the exercise by foreign citizens of
their freedom of religion and belief, particularly those invited by local
registered religious communities.

The procedure for inviting foreigners for religious purposes is laid down
in a January 2008 Council of Ministers Decree, amended in July 2010. Under
the Decree, a registered religious organisation must send an application
for permission invite a foreigner for religious purposes to the
Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs' Office a month in
advance. The invited foreigner must demonstrate knowledge of Belarus' state
languages (Belarusian and Russian) to perform religious work.

Only belief communities that have state permission to exist can invite
foreigners to work with them. The inviting organisation must be a
state-registered religious association consisting of 10 or more
communities, at least one community of which must have functioned for 20
years.

The Decree requires foreign citizens to have permission from the
Plenipotentiary to be in Belarus if they are "performing priest's duties,
teaching in religious institutions, establishing relations and contacts,
participation in charity activities connected with religious needs,
studying in religious institutions, and providing other religious
activities for the inviting religious organisation".

The Decree is unclear and broadly worded, allowing much room for arbitrary
official actions, as human rights lawyer Dina Shavtsova commented to Forum
18 in November 2017. For example, the words "establishing relations and
contacts" might include but not be limited to a foreigner attending a
meeting for worship, or praying with others, or talking to them, or giving
greetings from follow-believers abroad.

The Plenipotentiary alone decides whether this broadly defined religious
work by a foreign citizen is "necessary", and can refuse permission without
giving any reason. If permission for a religious community to invite a
foreign citizen to work is granted, the Regional Executive Committee's
Ideology, Culture and Youth Department will then issue a certificate
specifying in which single religious community the individual can work, and
the exact dates for which permission is given (usually for three months,
six months, or one year). "On halting work in the above parish," a typical
certificate seen by Forum 18 states, "the certificate is subject to return
to the Ideology, Culture and Youth Department" in the Region which has
issued it. Frequent re-applications to the Plenipotentiary's Office must
therefore be made, which the Plenipotentiary can refuse even if the
foreigner has worked in Belarus for many years.

If permission is granted, foreigners may work only within places of worship
belonging to, or premises continually rented by, the religious organisation
that invited them. Transferring a foreign religious worker from one
religious organisation to another - such as between parishes of the same
religious community - requires a re-application for new permission to work
to the Plenipotentiary's Office. This need for a re-application to work in
Belarus applies even if, for example, one foreign Catholic priest working
in Belarus wants to celebrate one Mass on one occasion only in a
neighbouring parish.

Such permission can be suddenly withdrawn, without any reason being given.
On 2 September 2020 the Plenipotentiary's office wrote to the Catholic
Bishop of Vitebsk, Oleg Butkevich, cancelling without any explanation the
permission to work and say Mass of Fr Jerzy Wilk. Gulyako gave the bishop
only one day's notice of the cancellation, which came into effect on 3
September, according to the letter seen by Forum 18.

Fr Wilk, who is 48, was parish priest of St Michael the Archangel Church in
the village of Voropaevo, about 200 kms (125 miles) west of the
north-eastern city of Vitebsk. Fr Wilk had been working in Belarus since
2003 and has an excellent command of the Belarusian language. Fr Viktor
Misevich of Vitebsk Diocese told Forum 18 in September 2020 that Fr Wilk
"has never violated the law, is sociable and dynamic in his parish
activities. He even plays football for Vitebsk Diocese." A Polish citizen,
Fr Wilk had the necessary permission to work as a priest from the
Plenipotentiary, valid until 14 February 2021. "He has a visa in the
passport and has the right to stay in the country but cannot work or say
Mass," Fr Misevich said.

Fr Misevich thought it would not be possible to do without a resident
priest in St Michael the Archangel parish, as it is large and priests in
neighbouring parishes are already carrying a large workload in their own
parishes. "This is going to make the life of ordinary people more
complicated," Fr Misevich told Forum 18. He also said that, despite their
existing heavy workload, a priest from a neighbouring parish had to
celebrate Mass on Sundays until a new priest is appointed.

Fr Wilk himself told Forum 18 on 15 September that about 500 parishioners
had written to Plenipotentiary Gulyako asking him to withdraw his decision.
"They are all very good and kind people," he said. "They did a lot for the
church, including repairs on the church building and its grounds. I am sad
to now be without them."

The Head of the Religious and Ethnic affairs Department of the
Plenipotentiary's Office, Andrey Aryaev, refused to explain why Fr Wilk's
right to work as a priest was suddenly revoked. "We do not give any
comments on this issue," Aryaev told Forum 18 on 16 September before
putting the phone down.

Legally resident foreign citizens who are not religious workers are banned
from any active participation – as against passive attendance – in
religious communities. For example, in May 2019, Mogilev Regional Executive
Committee warned a local Jehovah's Witness community for allowing locally
resident foreign citizens to participate "illegally" in meetings for
worship. The community had received an earlier warning in August 2018.

Two warnings within one year or the failure to end a "violation" can lead
to the stripping of a community's registration and so permission to legally
exist. Individuals violating these restrictions also risk punishment under
Administrative Code Article 23.55 ("Violation of legislation on the legal
status of foreign citizens and stateless persons").

Both Catholic and Orthodox leaders – who say they do not have enough
native priests – also want such restrictions on foreigner workers
changed. Fear of expulsion is a strong factor for the Catholic Church,
about 80 of whose approximately 500 priests are now (in 2020) foreign
citizens. In 2006 more than 125 of its then around 250 priests were foreign
citizens.

Refusals have affected even religious communities the state has not shown
much hostility towards. For example, in 2018 Russian citizen Archbishop
Dimitry (Drozdov) of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (which is part of the
Moscow Patriarchate Russian Orthodox Church) tried to invite two Russian
priests to work as parish priests in his Vitebsk Diocese. He applied for
permission for one year, but this was refused with no reason being given.
Unofficially, officials claimed to the Church that they wanted Belarusian
citizens and not foreigners as clergy, an excuse that has also sometimes
been given to justify refusing Catholic priests permission to work. "This
is not the first time for us," Fr Vladimir Rezanovich, secretary of Vitebsk
Diocesan administration, told Forum 18. He said that when such permission
is given, their foreign priests generally get permission to serve for one
year at a time.

Many of those refused permission are, like Fr Wilk, long term workers. For
example, Catholic priest Fr Pawel Knurek, a Polish citizen, was in November
2018 refused permission to continue his 15-year ministry in Belarus, most
recently in the cathedral parish of the Merciful Jesus in the north-eastern
city of Vitebsk. Fr Knurek left Belarus that same month, but local Bishop
Oleg Butkevich continued to press for the decision to be reversed. However,
on 13 January 2019 Bishop Butkevich received a further rejection from the
Plenipotentiary's Office.

Local Catholics launched an online petition to Plenipotentiary Gulyako on
20 January, asking him to explain the reasons of the denial and to grant
permission to Fr Knurek to return to his congregation. In recent years
Plenipotentiary Gulyako has repeatedly accused foreign Catholic priests of
violating the law, including allegedly by speeding, involvement in
political activity, and poor command of the Belarusian language. In their
petition, the Vitebsk parishioners highlighted that Fr Knurek spoke
excellent Belarusian, knew and understood Belarusian culture, and took
their problems seriously. The petition gained 616 signatures, 300 on the
first day, and was submitted to Plenipotentiary Gulyako on 4 February.
Gulyako replied the same day, writing that "based on the Law, the
Plenipotentiary has the right to give no reasons for the denial to this
priest."

"Local Catholics were offended by the officials' approach to their needs,
which they absolutely ignore," Vitebsk Catholic priest Fr Vyacheslav Barok
told Forum 18 in February 2019. He thinks that the authorities create an
illusion of pretending to stand for the rights of the Church. Fr Knurek
worked in his parish, in hospitals, and in educational institutions. "He
worked hard, and his work deserves respect," Fr Barok told Forum 18. He
added that the cathedral parish is large and needs at least two priests.
The Plenipotentiary's Office refused to discuss the refusal with Forum 18.

Similarly, at the beginning of 2019, Plenipotentiary Gulyako banned another
Polish Catholic priest, Fr Sobieslaw Tomala, from continuing his 20-year
ministry in St Francis Church (which he was instrumental in building) in
Soligorsk in Minsk Diocese beyond 31 January 2019. After more than 300
people signed a petition calling for Fr Tomala to be allowed to remain,
Plenipotentiary Gulyako extended the permission to work for only six months
more. This permission was later renewed.

The Plenipotentiary's Office also imposes long delays on applications, even
when made repeatedly. For example, Russian citizen Fr Klemens Werth has
been waiting for permission since 2016 to conduct religious work while
building a church for the parish of St Vladislav in one of the outer
districts of Vitebsk, where he is supposed to be the senior priest. The
parish has no church and currently holds services in rented premises while
a church is being built. Fr Werth currently has permission only to build a
church. "I am supposed to serve in this church, but so far I cannot work in
it as a priest," he told Forum 18.

"The authorities' decisions tie the hands of the Church," Fr Barok
observed. "Such pinpricks aimed at Catholic priests have a serious impact
on the Church. How can a priest work if he is not sure about the future?"
Fr Barok noted that there is a shortage of priests in Vitebsk's Catholic
Diocese. Though the number of local priests is increasing, there are still
40 foreign priests working in the diocese. However, the authorities have
not approved any new foreign priests since 2016.

The Plenipotentiary also rejects applications for short-term visitors to be
allowed to conduct religious work. For example, in 2017 he rejected a
Pentecostal Church's application for a pastor from Poland to attend a
three-day long conference. "They rejected the application, claiming our
documentation was not correct, even though we had fulfilled all the
requirements," Bishop Leonid Voronenko, head of the Full Gospel Church,
told Forum 18. "They always try to find some reason to make it look like it
is your fault."

Similarly, Plenipotentiary Gulyako in August 2018 and in July 2016 refused
the Catholic Grodno Diocese's application for Indian priest Father James
Manjackal to visit to lead spiritual exercises in the Catholic church in
Ross. Fr Cheslau Pauliukievich, the dean of Ross's Holy Trinity parish,
told Forum 18 in June 2016 that he had hosted Fr Manjackal for spiritual
exercises twice before without any obstacles. More than 5,000 Catholics had
attended the exercises, including Grodno Bishop Aleksandr Kashkevich. "He
came to Belarus last year without any problems. This time no reasons were
ever explained to us," Diocesan spokesperson Fr Pavel Solobuda stated. The
Plenipotentiary's Office refused to explain to Forum 18 why Fr Manjackal
had been denied permission, and Vladimir Skripo (Deputy Head of the
religious affairs section of Grodno Region Executive Committee) put the
phone down when Forum 18 called him.

The Plenipotentiary did, however, grant permission for all 45 foreign
Catholic bishops who visited Minsk in October 2017 to conduct religious
work during their visit and celebrate Mass. Their visit was for a meeting
of the Council of [Roman Catholic),
such prisoners may not be granted pastoral visits they request. Death-row
prisoners are informed of their executions only minutes beforehand, making
final meetings with families and others impossible.

If death-row prisoners are not Orthodox, arranging a clergy visit is
all-but impossible. Occasional exceptions are made for Catholic priests.
Officials allowed convicted murderer Pavel Selyun – executed in 2014 –
to conduct a correspondence course with a Protestant Bible study centre.
However, they denied a pastor's visit.  Andrei Paluda of the Human Rights
Centre Viasna, who leads their campaign to abolish the death penalty, told
Forum 18 that he knows of only one case where a Catholic priest was allowed
to meet a prisoner at their request – Eduard Lykov in 2014.

Death-row prisoners are allowed access to religious literature, Paluda of
Viasna stated, and an Orthodox priest is chaplain to the prison where death
row prisoners are held.

Currently (October 2020) there are four death-row prisoners, and in 2019
three death sntncese were carried out.

The bodies of executed prisoners are not given to families, the date and
place of burial is secret, and no opportunity is given for a religious
burial service.

Vladislav Kovalev's relatives complained to the UN Human Rights Committee
that his 2012 execution violated their right to freedom of religion and
belief (among other rights). The relatives argued that the regime's refusal
to give Kovalev's family his body for an Orthodox burial violated the
family's right to freedom of religion and belief.

In October 2012 the Human Rights Committee concluded that the regime's
refusal to hand over bodies for burial and to disclose the place of burial
"have the effect of intimidating or punishing the family by intentionally
leaving it in a state of uncertainty and mental distress". Viewing this as
amounting to inhuman treatment in violation of the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights, the Human Rights Committee did not examine
the relatives' claim that freedom of religion or belief had also been
violated.

Selyun's mother Tamara similarly tried to recover his body. "I want to read
the last rites over my son's body and bury him as a Christian. But I was
told that the body could not be handed over". In a May 2014 letter, prison
governor Colonel Vikenty Varikash told her: "Bodies are not handed over for
burial and the place of burial is not communicated".

Paluda of Viasna confirmed that families still in 2020 do not receive the
bodies of executed prisoners, who are buried secretly. Viasna gives legal
and moral support to the families of death-row prisoners, but Paluda knows
of no recent requests by families for religious burials of their relatives.

An end to human rights violations?

The current Belarusian regime's decisions are arbitrary and unpredictable,
showing no signs of respect for the rule of law and Belarus' legally
binding international human rights obligations. Given the regime's
increasingly serious violations of the interlinked human rights of the
people it rules – especially since the regime falsified the August 2020
presidential election results – there is little sign of the current
regime ending its violations of freedom of religion and belief and other
human rights. (END)

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