Date: January 26, 2023
Forum 18's freedom of religion and belief survey analysis of Belarus notes
continuing violations of this freedom and of interlinked freedoms. These
include a web of "legal" restrictions on which communities can meet, where,
who they are led by, and what literature they may use. These restrictions
make the exercise of freedom of religion and belief dependent on state
permission. Violations have worsened since fraudulent presidential
elections in August 2020, and the regime's support for Russia's renewed
invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
BELARUS: Religious freedom survey, January 2023
By Olga Glace, Forum 18, and John Kinahan, Forum 18
Freedom of religion and belief, with its interlinked human rights, are
seriously violated by the regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko. Violations by his
regime of the human rights of the people it rules have increased since
fraudulent presidential elections in August 2020, and the regime's support
for Russia's renewed invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Serious freedom of religion and belief violations documented by Forum 18
include but are not limited to:
- a web of "legal" restrictions which against international human rights
law make the exercise of freedom of religion and belief dependent on state
- surveillance by the KGB secret police of religious believers along with
monitoring of and restrictions on religious communities by the
Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs;
- banning religious communities from legally existing unless they have
- arbitrary obstacles imposed on the activities of even registered
communities, such as denials of building permission;
- multiple restrictions on where religious events can be held, what an
event can be about, and how participants can act;
- obstacles against religious communities using and reclaiming their places
of worship including, in Minsk, the denial of use of the Catholic "Red
Church" after a fire in unexplained circumstances, and the forcible
eviction of New Life Pentecostal Church and bans on it meeting in-person
- compulsory prior state censorship of and restrictions on the distribution
of most religious literature and objects, which runs in parallel with the
threat of banning texts or websites as allegedly "extremist";
- large scale repression of meetings for worship and nationwide
belief-based protests against election fraud, regime violence, and the
invasion of Ukraine;
- the prosecution of and removal from office of religious leaders, which in
the case of Orthodox clergy happens in collaboration with the Belarusian
- forced participation of state employees in regime-ordered religious
events to support the regime;
- serious human rights violations against political prisoners, including
their freedom of religion or belief;
- strict controls on the exercise by foreign citizens of their freedom of
religion and belief, including arbitrary denials of permission to work to
Belarus is located between Russia, Ukraine, and European Union member
states Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Aleksandr Lukashenko has ruled the
country since 1994 without free and fair elections being held
August 2020 presidential election was condemned by Belarusian and
international human rights defenders such as Viasna (Spring) as the "worst
election ever" (https://elections2020.spring9
marked by large-scale regime violence against people protesting nationwide
against the regime's serious violations of the human rights of the people
it rules. Repression related to the fraudulent election has continued since
political prisoners is Viasna chair and 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales
Repression has increased and continues after Russia's renewed February 2022
invasion of Ukraine (https://spring96.org/en/tags/
numbers of Belarusians have protested against. Human rights defenders such
as Humana Constanta (https://humanconstanta.org/en
documented the regime's "legal" changes to criminalise even more the
exercise of human rights. Many religious believers have been among the
large numbers protesting against election fraud and the invasion of
Ukraine, as Belarusian human rights defender group Christian Vision has
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. 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 registered 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
Many decisions and official warnings – especially those by the
Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs Aleksandr Rumak – 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.
"There always was surveillance"
The KGB secret police (which has retained the same name since the Soviet
period) keeps political opponents or perceived opponents under close
scrutiny. Among their targets are clergy and active members of a wide range
of religious communities and initiatives, human rights defenders have told
A network of state religious affairs and "ideology" officials also closely
monitors religious communities. The most senior such official is
Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs Rumak. His Office has nine
publicly named senior staff in Minsk, three of whom are 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 employ about 20 more officials in local
Ideology Departments whose mandate includes controlling religion. The KGB
secret police also restrict freedom of religion or belief.
State surveillance of clergy is routine. Polish Catholic priest Fr Andrzej
Bulczak noted that throughout his 14 years' service in Belarus from 2007 to
2022, "there always was surveillance". He noted that all foreign clergy are
under such surveillance. "My phone was listened in to, for example," he
told Forum 18 from the Polish city of Gdansk on 13 April 2022.
Police and officials of local Executive Committees' Ideology Departments
often visit religious leaders, including Catholic priests, Belarusian human
rights defender group Christian Vision notes. Forum 18 knows of one senior
Catholic priest who received such a visit in March 2022.
Orthodox theologian and human rights defender Natallia Vasilevich – who
now lives outside Belarus – has warned of regime surveillance of priests'
social media accounts, especially by Ideology Departments. Various regional
Executive Committee Ideology Departments and the Plenipotentiary for
Religious and Ethnic Affairs' office denied this to Forum 18, but clergy
have told Forum 18 that they have been visited by regime officials after
expressing online opposition to the war against Ukraine.
Compulsory state registration = compulsory state permission to exist
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).
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. They
complained to Forum 18 that owners of premises who are initially willing to
allow an address to be used to register a community often back down under
pressure from officials. 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
religious community's beliefs before granting legal status to it.
Officials arbitrarily deny registration to religious communities they do
not like, such as Orthodox communities outside the framework of the
Belarusian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). These include the
Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (which claims descent from the
Church founded in 1922 and which survived abroad).
In a further obstacle, the Belarusian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate)
registered its title in the early 2000s as a brand name "so that no other
organisation can register with that name", a church official told Forum 18.
No other religious community has been given such a state-backed monopoly.
State registration doesn't end problems
Even if a community is registered, this does not guarantee an end to
official obstruction. Pomore Old Believers in Minsk (who are registered)
have made persistent attempts since 2005 to relocate to Minsk a historical
wooden church on the border with Lithuania. In 2010 Minsk City Executive
Committee claimed – without giving reasons – that relocating the church
to the city was "inexpedient". It gave no explanation for this claim,
despite repeated questions by the community and Forum 18.
The Old Believer community then sought to build a new church in a village
near Minsk. However, Minsk District Executive Committee Chair Vladimir
Yurgevich claimed in March 2022 that the community had failed to lodge
completed building plans by an August 2021 deadline. The community insisted
to Forum 18 that this was not mentioned in any meeting with officials in
late 2021 and early 2022.
Currently, Minsk's Old Believers have to meet for worship in a converted
house, in the nearest Old Believer church 75 kms (45 miles) away, or in
Vilnius in Lithuania.
Old Believers think that officials consulted the Belarusian Orthodox Church
Moscow Patriarchate before rejecting the plans, as the regime has in the
past given the Belarusian Orthodox Church unwritten but real veto powers
over a related religious group. Although based on Russian Orthodoxy, the
Pomore Old Believers are independent of the Moscow Patriarchate, of which
the Belarusian Orthodox Church is a part. Neither the Executive Committee
nor the Belarusian Orthodox Church's Minsk Diocese Chancellery was in April
2022 willing to discuss the issue with Forum 18.
"Violation of the procedure for organising or conducting a mass event or
The 1997 Mass Events Law imposes restrictions on where events can be held,
what an event can be about, and how participants can act. Such restrictions
include that events must not be held between varying distances of 50 to 200
metres from a very wide range of state buildings, and a ban on "the use of
flags or pennants that are not registered under the established [state]
Amendments to the Mass Events Law which came into force in June 2021
require organisers of mass events to get permission from local
administrations before they start to advertise them. Holding mass events
without such permission is punishable. The amendments also banned the
collection of funds to pay for any fines imposed for violating the Mass
Those who violate these provisions can be punished under Administrative
Code Article 24.23 ("Violation of the procedure for organising or
conducting a mass event or demonstration") [until March 2021 Administrative
Code Article 23.34]. Punishments include a possible 15-day jail sentence
being imposed, while the March 2021 Administrative Code changes doubled the
maximum fine for repeat offences to 200 base units, or about 4 months'
average wages, or a jail sentence of between 15 and 30 days.
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 imposes
further conditions related to the Mass Events Law by setting varying event
fees to be paid to state agencies depending on the number of participants.
It requires that all permitted public event organisers - including of
religious events – must both agree event fees with the police, state
healthcare, and cleaning services, and also pay these fees in advance.
Some religious communities told Forum 18 that after the decree came into
force, they had to cancel or change their plans for annual pilgrimages and
religious meetings because they cannot afford the fees.
Regime officials are given a wide range of vague and arbitrary excuses to
ban or halt events with no notice. On 28 July 2022, a court in the
south-eastern city of Gomel fined Protestant Pastor Dmitry Podlobko of
Living Faith Church two weeks' average wage for holding outdoor baptisms
earlier that month in a pool on family-owned property without seeking
official approval. The Church is a state-registered congregation of the
Full Gospel Union. This was his second fine within a year to punish him for
conducting outdoor baptisms.
Captain Vasili Kravtsov, head of Gomel District Police which prepared the
2022 case against Pastor Podlobko, insisted that he had violated the law.
"Before conducting any religious rituals you need to ask permission from
the local Executive Committee," Kravtsov told Forum 18. "He didn't have
such permission. This is the law and I am obliged to carry it out." Asked
if Pastor Podlobko would have been punished had he and his friends simply
been swimming in a pool on his family-owned property, Kravtsov responded:
"They weren't swimming in the pool. This was a religious ritual. They are
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 an end to violence by the regime
increased. The regime has increasingly used Administrative Code Article
24.23 against public protests of any kind by anyone, including those taking
part in public prayer events.
Censorship and "extremism"
The regime imposes compulsory prior state censorship of and restrictions on
distribution of most religious literature and objects. Only registered
religious organisations can establish companies to produce religious
literature. Shops selling religious literature require permission to do
this from local administrations.
This censorship is overseen by the country's senior religious affairs
official, the Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs. Under
Religion Law Article 26, all imported religious literature and objects
undergo state censorship enacted by an "Expert Council" attached to the
Plenipotentiary's Office, as does all religious literature which libraries
wish to acquire.
The Plenipotentiary can seek an "expert analysis" of any religious
literature being distributed. "Expert analyses" can take up to three
months, making timely delivery of imported religious publications
impossible. One religious community told Forum 18 in January 2023 that
getting permission for imported religious literature currently takes
The most recent known denial of permission to distribute a religious
publication came in June 2019, when the Deputy Plenipotentiary upheld the
"Expert Council" rejection of the April 2019 issue of "The Watchtower"
magazine, published by Jehovah's Witnesses.
Censorship can also take place outside the formal state procedures, as when
the regime on 23 August 2020 without warning halted state radio broadcasts
of Catholic Mass on Sundays. Catholic Mass had been broadcast regularly
since the 1990s, and has been widely listened to by many Catholics,
especially those who are elderly, sick, or living in rural areas far from a
Catholic church. No explanation was given, and state broadcaster
Belteleradio refused to answer Forum 18's questions. Regular broadcast of
Sunday Mass resumed at the end of 2021.
No individual or belief community is able to have a religious FM
broadcasting band radio station, despite several attempts.
Formal state censorship runs in parallel with the threat of banning texts
or websites as allegedly "extremist". The regime began publishing the
"Republican List of Extremist Materials" listing such court-ordered bans in
After protests against the regime's fraudulent August 2020 elections began,
the regime expanded its use of the "Republican List of Extremist Materials"
and a range of Criminal Code and Administrative Code articles to target
belief-based protests against election fraud, regime violence, and Russia's
renewed February 2022 invasion of Ukraine (see below).
Such targeting of protests includes use of Administrative Code Article
19.11 ("Distribution, production, storage and transportation of information
products containing calls for extremist activities, or promoting such
activities") against religious community leaders.
Deputy Information Minister Igor Buzovsky, who is also Deputy Chair of the
"Republican Expert Commission for the Evaluation of Symbols, Attributes,
and Information Products for the presence (or absence) in them of signs of
Extremism", defended the banning of specific publications and websites as
"extremist". "This is done exclusively on the basis of the law," he
insisted to Forum 18 from Minsk on 5 January 2023. He refused to discuss
anything else about why religious publications are banned and put the phone
The regime studies a wide range of materials for elements of what it
regards as "extremism". These materials include not only printed and online
publications, but "symbols and attributes". A 12 October 2021 Council of
Ministers Decree specifies that these include "flags, anthems and other
musical works, attributes of a uniform, swastikas, emblems, symbols,
graffiti, logos, pennants and badges".
The Republican List of Extremist Materials as of 26 December 2022 ran to
480 pages, with more than three-quarters of the materials added in 2021 and
2022. It includes many xenophobic and racist works (such as Adolf Hitler's
"Mein Kampf"), as well as material produced by the political opposition and
foreign-based news websites. It also includes some religious works that do
not call for the violation of anyone's human rights. These include Islamic
and Protestant Christian books discussing these beliefs.
Authors have told Forum 18 that they were not told of the investigation or
court hearings which led to the bans. One such author, Azerbaijani Muslim
theologian Elmir Kuliyev, whose book "The Way to the Koran" was banned in
March 2014, questioned why his and other such books are banned. "In whose
interests is the ban on such books?" he asked Forum 18. "I am convinced
that any literate expert on Islam could recommend this and other such books
as material to prevent all kinds of extremist sentiments."
None of the religious books on the Republican List of Extremist Materials
are listed in the electronic catalogue of Belarusian libraries. It remains
unclear if libraries remove books from the catalogue if they appear on the
In late 2022, police in Brest found on the Greek Catholic
Belarusian-language news website Tsarkva (Church) links to materials and
logos from other websites that the regime had declared "extremist" in 2021.
Forum 18 was unable to find out whether – as prescribed by a Council of
Ministers Decree of 12 October 2021 – the Brest Regional "Expert
Commission for the Evaluation of Symbols, Attributes, and Information
Products for the presence (or absence) in them of signs of Extremism"
examined the Tsarkva website and social media pages and produced an
official declaration that they contained elements of "extremism".
One of the site's editors Ihar Baranovsky told Katolik.life news website on
27 December 2022 that by early December, the site's editors had removed all
links to such materials from their website as well as their pages on two
social media sites, Facebook and VKontakte. "This did not help," Baranovsky
On 14 December 2022 Judge Yelena Kovalchuk of Lenin District Court in Brest
declared the Tsarkva website "extremist", as well as its pages on two
social media sites. The sites were added to the Republican List of
Extremist Materials, published on the Information Ministry's website, on 26
December. The editors took the pages offline.
Judge Kovalchuk's secretary told Forum 18 that the Judge does not discuss
her decisions with those who are not parties to a case. The secretary would
say only that the decision had not been appealed against within the 15-day
Deputy Information Minister Buzovsky refused to discuss the banning of the
Tsarkva Greek Catholic website or other religious publications. "You speak
about one website – I wouldn't want to talk from memory," he claimed to
Forum 18. "You need to apply officially."
The regime did not ban any of the Belarusian Orthodox Church's diocesan or
monastery websites that similarly contained logos of websites the
authorities deemed "extremist", even when activists brought this to the
attention of the Information Ministry and the police.
Repression of belief-based protests against election fraud and invasion of
Amid a continuing crackdown on civil society, Lukashenko's regime is
pressuring religious communities to support it. The regime has also sought
to ban prayers for political prisoners.
Since August 2020, the Belarusian Orthodox Church – the largest religious
community in Belarus - has removed senior bishops and lower clergy seen as
disloyal to the regime. The Church has also given the regime lists of
priests who have supported protests against the regime, human rights
defenders told Forum 18.
In summer 2021 the Belarusian Orthodox Church is known to have given the
regime the names of about 100 priests which it regarded as disloyal to the
regime, the Nic and Mike Telegram channel noted on 10 June 2021. It said
the list included Fr Vladislav Bogomolnikov and Fr Aleksandr Kukhta, who
had led a service on the streets of Minsk to commemorate Roman Bondarenko,
a demonstrator beaten by unknown assailants in November 2020 and who died
of his injuries shortly after his arrest. In January 2021 the Belarusian
Orthodox Church removed Fr Kukhta from office.
One of the other clergy removed by the Orthodox Church was Archbishop
Artemy (Kishchenko) of Grodno in June 2021. "This [removal from office]
happened on the orders of the state," the Archbishop told Radio Free
Europe, adding that "they considered it necessary to deal with me". He
commented that the regime has been undertaking a "general purge" since the
August 2020 election. "While they have a bit of quiet, there's time to put
the church in its place a little. Because not all church figures support
the existing regime."
Between August and December 2020 the regime denied Archbishop Tadeusz
Kondrusiewicz, then-head of the Catholic Church, the second largest
religious community, re-entry to his own country. Other religious
communities condemned this, including Orthodox believers who launched a
campaign "Orthodox with Metropolitan Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz". The
Pentecostal Union stated that the Archbishop had "raised his voice in
defence of peace, mercy and unity, and in condemnation of violence, lies
and hatred. This is the spiritual, moral and ethical duty of any clergy
member, and does not represent political activity."
The regime allowed Archbishop Kondrusiewicz's return on 24 December 2020
following a letter to Aleksandr Lukashenko from Pope Francis. The day the
Archbishop reached the age of 75 on 3 January 2021 he offered his
resignation to Pope Francis (as all Catholic Bishops must do). The same day
the Pope accepted the resignation, and immediately appointed the also
75-year-old but almost 8 months older Bishop Kazimierz Wielikosielec as
temporary diocesan administrator in the Archbishop's place.
In March 2021, inspections began in Catholic churches in various parts of
Belarus after prosecutors launched a criminal case against the Union of
Poles, human rights defender group Christian Vision noted. Prosecutors, as
well as officials from local Ideology Departments at the request of
prosecutors, demanded reports from priests, catechetical plans and other
internal information about parish life.
Earlier, in November 2020, prosecutors had begun an investigation into the
YouTube and other social media accounts of Fr Vyacheslav Barok, parish
priest of Rasony in the northern Vitebsk Region. Three weeks later, Fr
Barok was jailed on 3 December for 10 days for publishing on Instagram a
copy of a poster, Stop Lukashism!, by Belarusian artist Vladimir Tsesler.
On 1 July 2021, police visited Fr Barok's parish, and a caller who claimed
to be the local police chief told Fr Barok by phone that he needed to
explain a photo he had posted on Instagram of a demonstration against the
regime. Police claimed Fr Barok had taken the photo in the nearby town of
Gorodok, and that it showed the children of parishioners from Vitebsk. The
photo, which had earlier been widely circulated on the internet, showed a
demonstration on 12 June 2021 in Poland not in Gorodok. Fr Barok himself
had not taken the photo, "so there was no event that could be qualified as
an offence", Christian Vision noted.
Police said they had opened a case against Fr Barok under Administrative
Code Article 24.23 ("Violation of the procedure for organising or
conducting a mass event or demonstration"), and summoned him for
questioning at the district police station. Police showed him prosecutor's
warrants to search the church, the priest's house and his living quarters.
Officers took his mobile phone. However, as the search warrants gave the
addresses of the church and his home incorrectly, officers could not search
Rasony Prosecutor's Office official Sergei Olesko read him an official
warning from 25 June 2021 from First Deputy Prosecutor of Vitebsk Region
Denis Shapovalov about posting "extremist" materials on the internet. "When
I was read that formidable text," Fr Barok noted on his Telegram channel on
4 July, "I had the impression that I was being accused of extremism,
incitement to hatred, propaganda of fascism, disrespect for the state,
slander of civil servants and false information about election fraud, and
even disrespect for [Belarusian Orthodox pro-regime] Metropolitan Veniamin
and disbelief in the great victory that is celebrated on 9 May. I remember
all this from memory from what I heard, because I was not given anything,
perhaps it was a secret document."
Fr Barok was due to face an administrative hearing on 4 July 2021,
according to the summons seen by Forum 18. After the police released him on
4 July after five hours, Fr Barok fled to Poland. This left the Rasony
parish without a priest.
Public Prosecutor Aleksandr Kazakevich claimed to Forum 18 on 23 July 2021
that Fr Barok was not given a copy of the official warning read to him as:
"The law specifies that such documents are not to be handed over."
Prosecutor Kazakevich added that he had followed Fr Barok's account of the
case against him which he had posted on social media, as well as other
sermons and messages he had posted online. He refused to comment on what he
had thought of Fr Barok's messages against state violence.
On 3 November 2021, Rasony District Court banned as "extremist" a YouTube
video of a Prayer for Belarus gathering on the streets of Warsaw on 17 July
2021 which Fr Barok addressed. On 14 October 2022, the same court banned as
"extremist" a wide-ranging, 95-minute interview with Fr Barok by Nikita
Melkozerov, who posted it to his YouTube channel. Both were added to the
Republican List of Extremist Materials.
The regime has also tried to stop individuals and religious communities
singing the hymn Mighty God (Mahutny Bozha in Belarusian), which dates back
to the 1940s and was unsuccessfully proposed as a new national anthem in
1995. Since August 2020 it has often been sung by protestors against the
regime's election falsification and violence.
On 2 July 2021, Lukashenko threatened people allegedly wanting "to crush
our sovereign state" under the banner of the Nazis. He claimed that "our
media are writing more and more that in [Catholic] churches they want to
pray (tomorrow, not today) under 'Mighty God'. Let's see, they'll get what
for." Police raided Minsk's Catholic Cathedral "with a complaint that some
norm of the law had been violated on account of the prayer Mighty God",
Bishop Yuri Kasabutsky wrote on his Facebook page on 6 July 2021. "What
exactly, they did not understand themselves.."
Bishop Kasabutsky asked: "So what's wrong with our favourite religious
hymn?" He added that the hymn "has become a prayer used in the worship of
Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, and recently this hymn is sung by
people who do not identify with any religion". He concluded: "Why can't we
sing 'Mighty God'? A rhetorical question.."
An official of Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs Rumak's
office claimed to Forum 18 on 15 July 2021 that Rumak "has not said if it
[Mighty God] is banned or not". The official refused to discuss official
warnings not to sing the hymn, or the police raid on Minsk's Catholic
cathedral after it was sung there.
Under a 2 February 2021 Council of Ministers Decree setting out events for
2021, described as "the year of national unity", Plenipotentiary for
Religious and Ethnic Affairs Rumak and the "basic denominations" were
tasked with organising an event on 2 July entitled "All-Belarus prayer 'For
Belarus!'". The date later appears to have been changed to 3 July, a
Saturday, marked as Independence Day.
The Decree also tasked religious organisations, the Plenipotentiary and
other organisations with organising and participating in various events
throughout 2021, including some to counter "extremism" and "Nazism", and to
promote knowledge of "the role of Orthodoxy in the formation of Belarusian
Plenipotentiary Rumak wrote to state organisations in June 2021, in a
letter seen by Forum 18. He instructed them that, "with the aim of the
widest possible attraction of individuals to the given event", it was
"desirable to hold the all-Belarus prayer in the form of a morning service
on Saturday 3 July 2021 in all [Orthodox] churches, [Catholic] churches,
mosques and synagogues of the traditional confessions of Belarus with the
widest attraction of believers, as well as representatives of the agencies
of state administration, society, culture and art".
Rumak added that letters had been sent to the leaders of the Belarusian
Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church's dioceses, the Jewish community, and
the Muslim community instructing them to hold the 3 July 2021 services.
Rumak's letter to the Minsk-Mogilev Catholic Archdiocese, drafted by Andrei
Aryayev (the Head of the Religious Department) and sent on 11 June (seen by
Forum 18), called for the diocese to hold morning services on 3 July "with
a wide attraction of believers" in all the Diocese's churches.
On 23 July, Forum 18 was told by an official – who then put the phone
down - that Plenipotentiary Rumak would not talk to Forum 18. Aryayev's
phone was not answered.
In the run-up to the 3 July 2021 "For Belarus" prayer day, First Deputy
Minister of Transport and Communications Aleksei Lyakhnovich sent a letter
to all organisations under the Ministry's control. He repeated word for
word the instructions Rumak had issued "to organise the participation in
this event of representatives of organisations in accordance with their
On 16 June 2021, the Minsk-Mogilev Catholic Archdiocese sent a message to
all priests, signed by Fr Roman Strashko, complaining of the state
instruction to hold prayers in all places of worship on 3 July. It also
posted the message on the Catholic.by website. Within less than three hours
the website announcement was changed to remove the complaint.
The revised message asked all priests "if the opportunity arises" to add
prayers for "unity and peace in our country, as well as a call that the
decisions taken today, in the 21st century, do not lead to that horror
which took place in the 20th century". It also encouraged priests at the
end of Mass on 3 July "to sing the hymn Mighty God, in which we will ask
Almighty God to save us and our land from all evil".
About 50 uniformed officials of the Emergency Situations Ministry attended
a service at Vitebsk's Assumption Orthodox cathedral on 3 July 2021. A
short video of the service, posted by the Ministry the same day, does not
appear to show anyone who was not an official taking part in the service.
On 3 July 2021, at a major pilgrimage to the Catholic shrine at Budslav,
the hymn Mighty God was not sung for the first time since the 1990s.
"Before the start of the Budslav festival," human rights defender group
Christian Vision noted, "information emerged that the authorities are
putting pressure on the organisers not to have the hymn sung."
Dmitry Korneyenko, an Orthodox Christian from Vitebsk, stated that the
regime was forcing state employees to attend Belarusian Orthodox Church
(Moscow Patriarchate) prayers for Belarus. He commented that state
compulsion was necessary as trust by local Orthodox Christians in their
religious leaders had declined. "The attendance at the prayer 'For
Belarus', organised in Assumption Cathedral, was few in number," Korneyenko
noted on his Facebook page on 11 July 2021. "Dozens of employees of the
Emergency Situations Ministry of Vitebsk Region were forcibly summoned to
provide an image of large numbers attending."
Denis Zakharov, head of personnel at Vitebsk Emergency Situations
Department, refused on 23 July to answer when Forum 18 asked whether
attendance at the Orthodox prayer service had been voluntary.
When Forum 18 on 15 July 2021 asked an official of the Plenipotentiary's
Office why the regime had ordered religious communities to hold prayers for
Belarus on 3 July, he replied: "There were no orders. You have distorted
Regime officials frequently issue orders to Orthodox leaders. On 10 June
2021, the deputy head of the Ideology and Youth Work Main Department of
Grodno Regional Executive Committee, Sergei Shumeiko, wrote to Orthodox
Bishop Porfiry (Prednyuk) of Lida instructing him to arrange for church
bells in his diocese to be rung just after midday on 22 June to commemorate
the 80th anniversary of the Nazi German attack on the Soviet Union.
"We ask you to inform us the Main Department by 16 June 2021 of decisions
taken, indicating which churches will take part in this action," Shumeiko's
letter – seen by Forum 18 – instructs Bishop Porfiry. In a handwritten
note on the letter, the Bishop instructs local clergy to obey the regime's
Vladimir Skripko, the head of the Religious Department who drafted
Shumeiko's letter, denied that it was an instruction. "No one has to do
anything," Skripko insisted to Forum 18 from Grodno on 23 July 2021. "They
could agree or not agree – it was only a proposal." The official refused
to discuss anything else and put the phone down.
Renewed invasion of Ukraine
From February 2022, the regime's main focus of its freedom of religion and
belief and related human rights violations has been monitoring,
threatening, and punishing religious leaders and people opposing Russia's
24 February 2022 renewed invasion of Ukraine, and the Belarusian regime's
role in this. This is a shift from targeting those criticising regime
violence after the August 2020 falsified presidential election.
On 3 March 2022, about 100 mothers of young men serving in Belarus' armed
forces attended the regular evening prayer service at the Orthodox Holy
Spirit Cathedral in central Minsk. They came to pray in front of the icon
of the Mother of God for an end to the war in neighbouring Ukraine, which
Russia partly launched from Belarus.
OMON riot police and ordinary police were already waiting for the mothers
when they arrived for the 6.00 pm service. "We went into the church, they
followed us," the Union of Mothers Telegram channel noted. "Before going in
they demanded our documents and photographed us." Plain clothes officers
were present in the cathedral during the service.
Just before the service started, police arrested journalist Dziana
Seradzyuk and her husband. A court jailed both the following day for 15
Afterwards, despite the pleas of the priest who had led the service,
officers took four of the women to Minsk's Central District Police Station.
When the duty officer asked colleagues who they were, he was told: "Four
women from the cathedral." Officers questioned the four women for several
hours before releasing them. "On leaving they warned us of the consequences
of unapproved meetings. I no longer had strength to argue that prayer is
not a meeting," one of the women noted. Police came the following day to
the home of a fifth woman who had prayed at the cathedral, but she was not
Neither Minsk's Central District Police, nor Plenipotentiary for Religious
and Ethnic Affairs Rumak, would explain the regime's actions to Forum 18.
Human rights defenders think that the regime is targeting for prosecution
religious leaders prominent in their local communities, if they publicly
oppose regime violence following the fraudulent 2020 presidential election,
or oppose Belarus' role in Russia's renewed invasion of Ukraine.
Of two Catholic priests targeted in March 2022 in the northern Vitebsk
Region, Fr Aleksandr Baran was given a 10-day jail term under
Administrative Code Article 24.23 ("Violation of the procedure for
organising or conducting a mass event or demonstration") for having the
white-red-white flag of Belarus which is associated with the opposition, as
well as a Ukrainian flag on his social media profile. He added the
Ukrainian flag the day Russia invaded Ukraine.
Police also accused Fr Baran under Administrative Code Article 19.11
("Distribution, production, storage and transportation of information
products containing calls for extremist activities, or promoting such
activities") for likes and comments during 2020 on social media pages which
the regime later deemed to be "extremist".
On 13 May 2022, a court fined Fr Andrzej Bulczak – a Polish citizen who
has served for 14 years in Belarus – over three weeks' average wages in
absentia. He had posted a YouTube video of less than three minutes
recounting a letter a girl wrote to a friend in Poland opposing the war in
Ukraine. One photo in the video shows the logo of Belsat, a Polish-based
television channel the regime has deemed "extremist", as well as the
white-red-white Belarusian flag used by protestors against the regime. Fr
Bulczak had fled the country ahead of a court hearing that could have
On 25 March 2022, police raided the home of Baptist Pastor Roman
Rozhdestvensky in Cherikov. A court fined him about two weeks' average wage
under Administrative Code Article 19.11. The same day police in Mogilev
raided the home of Greek Catholic priest Fr Vasily Yegorov. A court fined
him more than one month's average wage under Administrative Code Article
24.23 for displaying a "Ukraine, forgive us" sticker on his car.
Fr Baran, who was given a 10-day jail term, spoke to the police about why
he was being singled out. "I tried to explain to them that hundreds of
thousands of Belarusians at that time posted similar likes [of pages
protesting against regime violence and election falsification] – does it
follow that they too should be prosecuted?" he told Katolik.life.
Fr Baran observed that the regime is "meddling in the life of every person,
in the life of the Church, they want to destroy its authority and shut
people's mouths". He commented after his arrest that "they were already
prepared for my arrest; there were piles of papers and some other documents
about me lying there."
Police in Postavy refused to discuss with Forum 18 why it had taken action
against both Fr Baran and Fr Bulczak. When the case against Fr Bulczak
reached court, the regime's senior religious affairs official,
Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs Rumak, told Fr Bulczak's
bishop that he had stripped the priest of his permission to conduct
religious work in Belarus. A colleague of Rumak refused to explain his
actions to Forum 18.
The regime also targets priests of the regime-supporting Moscow
Patriarchate Belarusian Orthodox Church if they oppose the regime and
Russia's renewed invasion of Ukraine. In April 2022, local police summoned
Fr Andrei Nozdrin, who led the St Spyridon of Trimython parish in Grodno,
for a "preventive conversation" after complaints from two informers who
were not happy with his anti-war position and singing the hymn Mighty God.
The hymn is associated with opposition to the regime, and both the regime
and the head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Veniamin have
banned it (see above).
"They questioned me about my statements regarding Ukraine and why we sing
Mighty God in the church," Fr Nozdrin told Forum 18. "They even talked to
my neighbours and friends but found no criminal wrongdoing."
On 25 April 2022, Grodno's October District Police wrote to Fr Nozdrin
warning him against alleged "extremist violations and crimes". Fr Nozdrin
told Forum 18 that everyone knew that in his sermons and elsewhere he
always insisted that "a Christian cannot say that what's going on in
Ukraine is good, and should understand that killing is a sin". He said he
will continue to teach these "Christian principles".
On 18 May 2022, Archbishop Antony (Doronin) of Grodno dismissed Fr Nozdrin
from all his diocesan roles, and transferred him away from Grodno to a
small village. The regime sent a police unit to attend Fr Nozdrin's 20 May
farewell service, "but the people showed them out because they did not
pray", Fr Nozdrin said.
Police refused to discuss the case with Forum 18, and Grodno Diocese
spokesperson Fr Igor Danilchik insisted on 2 June 2022 that Fr Nozdrin's
transfer was Archbishop Antony's decision alone without pressure from the
regime. He did not explain why the regime sent police to Fr Nozdrin's
farewell service. Fr Danilchik also claimed that Grodno parishioners had
not complained to the Diocese.
Such targeting has continued in 2023. The Organised Crime Police detained
Orthodox priest Fr Dionisy Korostelev for praying in a Minsk church on 1
January for the defenders of Ukraine, pro-regime Telegram channels
announced. He had been denounced by the pro-regime activist Olga Bondareva
(who frequently launches campaigns against clergy and others she does not
like), who had allegedly learnt of the prayer from a parishioner. Fr
Dionisy had said the prayers at a New Year service in the Minsk Church of
the Joy of All the Sorrowful Icon of the Mother of God, where his father is
The head of the regime-supporting Moscow Patriarchate Belarusian Orthodox
Church, Metropolitan Veniamin (Tupeko), banned Fr Dionisy from further
religious service on 4 January 2023. Fr Dionisy's prayer had "aroused
confusion among parishioners", Metropolitan Veniamin claimed in his letter
to deans in Minsk Diocese, made public by human rights defender group
Political prisoners' freedom of religion or belief
The regime has jailed an increasing number of political prisoners since
protests broke out against the falsified presidential elections of August
2020. Many have been tortured, and political prisoners are frequently
denied other human rights such as freedom of religion and belief.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in
Belarus, Anaïs Marin, in her 4 May 2022 report to the UN Human Rights
stated: "The conditions in places of deprivation of liberty, pretrial
detention centres and prisons are deeply concerning. Prisoners convicted on
politically motivated charges and persons arrested and detained for
exercising their civil and political rights report widespread use of force
and continued ill-treatment, which also includes overcrowding and
Special Rapporteur Marin also observed that "the systemic impunity for
crimes of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or
punishment in Belarus compels human rights groups to seek justice abroad".
Such violations also affect the freedom of religion or belief. Prison
authorities insist on removing from prisoners all jewellery and neck
crosses – such as baptismal crosses commonly worn by Orthodox Christians.
This is despite 2004 and 2016 Interior Ministry Decrees which allow
prisoners to have "objects of religious cult for individual use for body or
pocket wear, except for piercing and cutting objects, items made of
precious metals, stones or of cultural and historical value".
Following his short-term jailing in September 2020, Dmitry Korneyenko, an
Orthodox Christian from Vitebsk, the following month described the removal
of his cross as the "greatest unhappiness in the conditions of my
detention, as a believer". Noting that he understood the need to remove
sharp metal objects and laces from prisoners, he questioned why the prison
authorities had not worked out a way to deal with prisoners' neck crosses.
"At almost all stages of my detention, I tried to find out how this
prohibition could be circumvented, which greatly disturbed my religious
feelings," Korneyenko added.
The prison authorities similarly demanded the removal of Korneyenko's cross
during a subsequent short-term jail term handed down in January 2021, human
rights defender group Christian Vision noted on 28 February 2021. His cross
was taken and held with his other property during his entire jailing.
On 16 November 2020, an Orthodox Christian from Minsk, Roman Abramchuk,
recounted how police had cut jewellery and crosses from the necks of those
they detained, including himself. He had asked the police officer to at
least leave his cross. "So he cut it off with particular harshness and
threw it under his feet."
On 30 June 2021, an Interior Ministry decree (which came into force on 23
September) removed the right of those held in pre-trial Investigation
Prison from subscribing to newspapers and magazines. In most cases this
targets political prisoners, according to a human rights defender of the A
Country to Live In Foundation (which helps political prisoners).
"Generally religious literature subscriptions are prohibited, as well as
handing them in," the human rights defender commented to Forum 18 on 2
November 2021. "They may restrict people in taking meals, but to leave them
without being able to read religious literature is inhuman and cruel."
Nastassia Yemeliyanava told Forum 18 that prison authorities sometimes
handed over religious books (including the Bible and prayer books) she had
sent to her son Mikita Yemialyianau, but parcels with books are limited to
2 kilograms per year. Her son had no problem subscribing to the "Catholic
Herald", a monthly newspaper of the Vitebsk Roman Catholic Diocese, while
he was being held in Investigation Prison No. 1 in Minsk and in Temporary
Detention Centre No. 8 in Zhodino. He was also allowed to subscribe to it
for the first six months of 2021 when he was in Mogilev Prison No. 4.
However, prison officials did not hand to him the May 2021 edition and
denied his request to renew the subscription until the end of 2021.
On 16 June 2021, the then-Acting Governor of Prison No. 4, Dmitry
Yeliseyenko, claimed that the refusal was due to Criminal Enforcement Code
Article 89, Part 2, which prohibits prisoners "to receive, acquire, store
and distribute publications promoting war, incitement to racial, national
and religious hatred, violence or cruelty, and publications of a
pornographic nature; as well as subscribing to them". He did not specify
which part of the "Catholic Herald" contained the prohibited information.
Prison Governor Yeliseyenko also wrongly claimed that prisoner of
conscience Yemialyianau did not apply to subscribe to the "Catholic Herald"
for the second half of 2021. His mother noted that prison officials had
crossed out this newspaper by hand from the list of publications that
prisoners could subscribe to.
Clergy visits are also denied. After her 18 March 2021 arrest, Olga Zolotar
repeatedly requested a visit from a Catholic priest, as did Catholic
representatives. However, the Investigative Committee which was handling
the criminal case against her refused such permission. Finally, on 2 June
2021, the prison administration allowed a visit by the Vatican nuncio,
Archbishop Ante Jozic. Zolotar's mother earlier tried to hand in a prayer
book for her, but the prison administration refused it.
While awaiting trial in Minsk's Investigation Prison No. 1 up till April
2021, Pavel Severinets requested a visit from an Orthodox priest in writing
on at least five occasions, while his wife Volha requested such a clergy
visit on three occasions. Representatives of religious organisations also
requested visits with him. However, over nine months not one pastoral visit
Denials of clergy visits are in violation of the UN Standard Minimum Rules
for the Treatment of Prisoners (known as the Mandela Rules, A/C.3/70/L.3
Rule 65 states: "Access to a qualified representative of any religion shall
not be refused to any prisoner."
Current or former political prisoners have noted the difficulty of
attending the limited meetings for worship allowed in prisons. The
administration of Prison No. 24 at Zarechye in Gomel Region prevented
Orthodox Christian Yelena Movshuk from attending a worship service in the
prison on 25 August 2021. The prison administration refused the Orthodox
chaplain access to her.
A nurse from Vitebsk, Yuliya Kasheverova, was freed from prison on 16
September 2021 after nearly a year in detention, mostly spent in Prison No.
4 in Gomel. "In the labour camp there were courses in a foreign language
and economics," she told the Reflection blog on 21 September, "but we,
political prisoners, were not allowed to attend clubs, the church, the gym
or places of study."
Denials of access to worship meetings and religious literature also violate
the Mandela Rules, Rule 66 stating: "So far as practicable, every prisoner
shall be allowed to satisfy the needs of his or her religious life by
attending the services provided in the prison and having in his or her
possession the books of religious observance and instruction of his or her
On 15 July 2021, Forum 18 asked the Department for the Implementation of
Punishments of the Interior Ministry in Minsk in writing why prison
administrations deny prisoners' (particularly political prisoners) freedom
of religion or belief, including the right to have clergy visits and to
receive and have religious literature and objects, such as neck crosses.
Forum 18 has not yet (in January 2023) received a reply. Such violations
Prisoners' freedom of religion or belief in Belarusian law
The regime's treatment of its prisoners often contravenes its own published
law, as well as international human rights standards. Article 12 of the
Criminal Enforcement Code guarantees prisoners serving sentences freedom of
religious belief, where prisoners "are allowed individually or with other
prisoners" to profess, express and share any faith "and participate in
carrying out religious worship, rituals and rites not banned in law". They
are also allowed to have and use religious objects and literature.
However, Article 12 restricts the ability to exercise this freedom by this
statement: "In conducting religious worship, rituals and rites, the Rules
for internal order of prisons or the rights of others who have been
sentenced must not be violated."
Under Article 174 of the Criminal Enforcement Code, prisoners sentenced to
death are allowed visits from a priest. However, against the UN Standard
Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (known as the Mandela Rules,
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 such as clergy impossible.
Paragraphs 116 and 117 of Interior Ministry Decree of 13 January 2004 (most
recently amended on 30 June 2021) on the rules for investigation prisons,
and a similar Interior Ministry Decree of 30 November 2016 (most recently
amended on 2 August 2021) related to Temporary Detention Centres, make
provision for prisoners on remand to have religious literature and other
objects, as well as receive visits from clergy.
"Persons on remand are allowed to have with them and use religious
literature, objects of religious cult for individual use for body or pocket
wear, except for piercing and cutting objects, items made of precious
metals, stones or of cultural and historical value," Paragraph 116 of the
2004 Interior Ministry Decree states.
"In order to provide spiritual assistance to persons on remand, at their
request and with the permission of the body conducting the criminal
proceedings, it is allowed to invite representatives of religious
denominations registered in the Republic of Belarus to the pre-trial
detention centre," Paragraph 117 states. "The services of the ministers of
religious confessions are paid at the expense of the persons who are held
Rules for prisoners serving sentences in prisons (as set out in a 20
October 2000 Interior Ministry Decree, most recently amended in 2021) and
in open prisons (as set out in a 13 January 2017 Interior Ministry Decree)
note that prisons can have places of worship. However, the rules contain no
guarantees of freedom of religion or belief for prisoners.
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 less affected, partly
because they are more likely to occupy designated historically preserved
places of worship.
Many places of worship confiscated in the Soviet era were in the 1990s
returned to their original Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish community
owners – if the communities were registered - at the request of
Only a few historical places of worship remain in the state's possession,
as their return was not requested in the 1990s. Subsequently, many of these
religious communities have repeatedly but unsuccessfully applied for
ownership to be restored to them. In these cases, the state pays for
continued maintenance of the building, and the religious community which
uses the building pays an amount to the state as rent and for utility
charges. There is no time limit for how long these agreements continue.
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 for work on the church facade. 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. The Church also faces demands for just under 13,000 Belarusian
Roubles a month in rent to state-run Minsk Heritage, to which ownership of
the church has been handed. 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
Also, the parish was not told before the work how much the authorities
would charge the parish. People associated with the Red Church told Forum
18 that they 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.
Minsk Heritage would not explain why it is unilaterally imposing a large
bill, or refusing to return the Church to Catholics. The latest refusal was
in June 2020, and a parishioner-launched petition asking the Presidential
Administration to return ownership of the Red Church to the parish gained
5,000 signatures within the first week.
In the early hours of 26 September 2022 a fire broke out in the sacristy,
an annexe to the Red Church. Katolik.life noted the following day that two
windows were found to have been broken at the entrance close to where the
fire broke out, and that OMON riot police had closed off the square three
hours before the fire. Parishioners told Katolik.life that, according to
the Church watchman, "before the smoke appeared in the church, a rumble was
heard". The Investigative Committee arrived practically together with the
Emergency Situations Ministry, which parishioners described as "strange and
ambiguous". Katolik.life also noted that Investigators took away computers
and video surveillance recordings.
The parish has not been give access to information about the course of the
investigation. The parish has sent a request to the Investigative Committee
to provide information on the results.
Both Moscow District Police and the Investigative Committee refused to
discuss with Forum 18 the suspicious circumstances of the fire and the
progress of the investigation.
On 5 October 2022, Minsk Heritage, the building agency that has control of
the Church, ordered the parish to remove all its property from the entire
building by 12 October. Officials have given no timetable for the repairs
they claim to be undertaking.
"Despite the small area of damage, the entire church is sealed and not
accessible to the public for holding services," the parish complained in an
online petition for the Church to be reopened for worship. It called for
services to be allowed to resume in the main part of the Church, the side
chapels, or the yard outside the Church.
Minsk Heritage refused to explain to Forum 18 why access to the church was
banned when only a small part of it was damaged, when restoration works
will start, and whether the cost for repair works will be charged to the
Catholics in Mogilev, Grodno, Bobruisk and Niasvizh are all also trying
without success to regain ownership of their own historical churches which
they already use.
One of the longest-running property cases is New Life Church, which 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. This is in contrast to a disused
railway carriage 500 metres from New Life's building which was without
regime obstruction used from January 2001 by a Belarusian Orthodox Church
(Moscow Patriarchate) community. That community has now built a church,
also without any regime obstruction.
The regime repeatedly tried to evict New Life Church from 2009 onwards. On
17 February 2021, 30 police and court bailiffs forcibly evicted New Life
from its building, using an angle grinder to cut the door lock to gain
entry. The bailiff's enforcement order was signed by Aleksey Petrukovich,
and he refused to explain to Forum 18 why the eviction happened and why
force was used.
The Enforcement Department claimed it was executing an order of the Higher
Economic Court in January 2009. The Secretary of the Head of the
Enforcement Department refused to explain to Forum 18 on 18 February 2021
why the city authorities decided to evict the Church over 12 years later.
New Life's administrator Vitaly Antonchikov suspected that the reason for
the sudden eviction was 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 objecting to election fraud.
After being ousted from its own place of worship, New Life Church held its
worship services in the car park outside each Sunday, whatever the weather.
Artyom Tsuran, a Deputy Chair of Minsk City Executive Committee,
subsequently rejected all New Life Church's attempts to seek permission to
hold meetings either in the car park, or to have their church building
returned to them.
On 1 August 2022 Tsuran wrote warning the Church that it had broken the law
by holding Sunday meetings for worship in the church car park on 26 June
and 24 July without official permission. He warned that if the "violation"
is repeated within a year, the regime's Plenipotentiary for Religious and
Ethnic Affairs could go to court to liquidate the Church, with a possible
ban on its activity as the court considers the suit.
On 1 September 2022, New Life wrote to Minsk City Executive Committee
requesting permission for Sunday worship meetings in the Church's car park.
Deputy Chair Tsuran replied on 15 September denying permission based on
Decree No. 49 of the Council of Ministers requiring the payments of event
fees to the regime in advance (see above), and claiming that New Life had
not supplied the information required by the Mass Events Law (see above).
The Church replied on 16 September "with all the requested information
about our meetings" (seen by Forum 18).
On 19 September 2022, Frunze District Police summoned New Life's Pastor
Vyacheslav Goncharenko and detained him for several hours. The same day a
court fined him two months' average wages under Administrative Code Article
24.23 ("Violation of the procedure for organising or conducting a mass
event or demonstration"). On 22 September 2022, the same court fined Pastor
Antoni Bokun of Minsk's John the Baptist Pentecostal Church, who regularly
supported New Life Church, about two months' average wages under Article
24.23 after police had detained him overnight.
On 25 September 2022, police banned the Church's Sunday meeting for worship
held outdoors in its car park, threatening to detain anyone who did not
leave. This forced New Life to halt the in-person worship meetings it had
held in the church car park every Sunday, whatever the weather, since the
February 2021 forcible eviction. The Church continues to hold meetings
online or in other churches' premises.
On 28 September 2022, Deputy Chair Tsuran of Minsk City Executive Committee
replied to Pastor Goncharenko's 16 September letter insisting that all
meetings must have prior state approval. He added that, as Pastor
Goncharenko had been punished for leading an unapproved mass meeting, he
could not organise any meetings.
Neither Tsuran of Minsk Executive Committee nor Olga Chemodanova, Head of
the Ideology Department (who drafted Tsuran's letters), would answer Forum
18's questions on 3 October 2022.
Controls on foreigners
The regime strictly controls the exercise by foreign citizens of their
freedom of religion and belief, and only belief communities that have state
permission to exist can invite foreigners to work with them. The
Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs alone decides whether the
religious work by a foreign citizen is "necessary", and can refuse
permission without giving any reason.
Only registered religious communities are allowed to invite foreign
citizens for any public religious activity. If the state grants such
permission it is only valid for the one religious community which has
Under a January 2008 Council of Ministers Decree (most recently amended in
July 2018), permission for foreign citizens to work for religious purposes
(whether as a resident or as a visitor) is given or refused by the
Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs. Foreign citizens must
demonstrate knowledge of Belarus' state languages (Belarusian and Russian)
in order to perform religious work. The Plenipotentiary defines the period
of permission (up to one year), can at any time withdraw permission, and is
not obliged to communicate the reasons for a refusal.
If the Plenipotentiary decides to give permission for a foreign religious
worker to work, the regional Executive Committee's [local authority]
Ideology Department is responsible for issuing a certificate specifying in
which single religious community the individual can work, and the exact
dates for which permission is given (usually three months, six months, or
The Plenipotentiary may refuse permission for a foreign religious worker to
conduct religious work without giving any reason. Such decisions are
entirely within the Plenipotentiary's power and are difficult for the
communities which have invited them to challenge.
The Catholic Church is the community most hit by such controls on
foreigners invited to serve in the country, though the Belarusian Orthodox
Church (Moscow Patriarchate) has also faced denials of permission to serve.
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. The Plenipotentiary gave
the Bishop only one day's notice of the cancellation, which came into
effect on 3 September 2020, according to the letter seen by Forum 18.
Fr Wilk was parish priest of St Michael the Archangel Church in the village
of Voropaevo, about 200 kms (125 miles) west of Vitebsk. He 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.
The Head of the Religious and Ethnic Affairs Department of the
Plenipotentiary's Office, Andrei Aryayev, refused to explain to Forum 18
why Fr Wilk's right to work as a priest was suddenly revoked.
In the most recently known case, Polish citizen Fr Jozef Geza had served as
Catholic parish priest in the western city of Grodno since 1997. In late
2022, Plenipotentiary Rumak refused Fr Geza's bishop's request to extend
permission for him to continue to serve in the country. After his last Mass
in Grodno's Holy Redeemer Church on 27 December, Fr Geza left Belarus after
25 years' service.
Aryayev of the Religious Department of the Office of the Plenipotentiary
for Religious and Ethnic Affairs refused to say why Plenipotentiary Rumak
had refused the bishop's request to extend Fr Geza's right to conduct
religious work. "Under the law of Belarus, the Plenipotentiary has the
right not to comment on such decisions," Aryayev told Forum 18. "He won't
comment." Aryayev too refused to comment on the decision.
Fear of expulsion is a strong factor for the Catholic Church, about 80 of
whose approximately 500 priests were in 2020 foreign citizens. In 2006 more
than 125 of its then around 250 priests were foreign citizens.
Legally-resident foreign citizens who are not religious workers are banned
from any active participation – as against passive attendance – in
religious communities. 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.
The Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs has also refused
Protestant and Catholic communities permission to invite specific
individuals from abroad to take part in religious meetings.
An end to human rights violations?
The current Belarusian regime's decisions are arbitrary and unpredictable,
showing increasing lack of respect for the rule of law and Belarus' legally
binding international human rights obligations. There is no sign of the
current regime ending its violations of freedom of religion and belief and
other human rights of the people it rules. (END)
Full reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Belarus
Previous surveys of freedom of religion and belief in Belarus
Forum 18's compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in
Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments
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