The pastor of the Full Gospel Church in the Belarusian capital Minsk, Veniamin Brukh, has escaped on a technicality from being punished under the administrative code for speaking up in public as a leader of a religious freedom group. The interdenominational group—the Association for Religious Freedom in Belarus—does not have official registration and the authorities argue that it is therefore an offence to speak in its name, although the organization exists. Alla Ryabitseva, head of the Department for Religious and Ethnic Affairs at Minsk City Council, told Keston News Service from Minsk on January 18 that she `did not know' what would happen if anyone spoke again in the name of the Association for Religious Freedom in Belarus.

Ryabitseva claimed never to have heard of the association. Asked why it needed to have registration to be able to exist and function, she declined to answer such `very big theoretical questions'. `Our department deals only with concrete issues.' She declined to comment on how actions against Pastor Brukh as a leader of the association squared with Belarus' commitment to freedom of association under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights agreements to which Belarus is a party.

Brukh was charged on January 12 under Article 167, point 10, of the administrative code for `speaking on behalf of a non-existent social organization', which the article forbids. In an interview with the newspaper Belorusskaya Gazeta on November 6, 2000 he had been referred to as `the deputy coordinator of the working group of the Association for Religious Freedom in Belarus', and in a letter of November 2, 2000 to the Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs and Belarusian Television, Pastor Brukh referred to himself in the same way.

Pastor Brukh told Keston on January 15 that three days earlier he had been visited in the church office by a policeman, Vladimir Ionov, from the Moscow Region of Minsk Department of Internal Affairs. He went with him to the police station, accompanied by the church's lawyer, Dina Shavtsova, where they spoke with the deputy head of department, Mukhtarov. A summons was issued for Brukh to appear in court the following day, but while the judge was considering the pastor's written explanation along with other documents relating to the case, he noticed that the two months allowed for bringing a such a charge had already expired. As January 6 was the last possible date for the case to be heard, Pastor Brukh escaped conviction.

The Association for Religious Freedom in Belarus is an informal group of Protestant church leaders, representing Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Lutheran and charismatic churches, who have met periodically over the last few years to discuss religious liberty concerns. In Minsk, for example, Protestant churches which do not have their own buildings have been prevented by the city council from renting any other premises, and are thus deprived of the opportunity to meet except in members' homes. Local authorities across the country have made it difficult or impossible for new Protestant churches to register. Pastor Brukh's November letter on behalf of the Association was in protest at a film shown on Belarusian Television on October 26 and November 2, 2000, entitled `Expansion' which conveyed a negative image of Protestants, especially Pentecostals.

It had been unclear whether the Belarusian authorities required the Association to register officially. A recent change in the law, however, made registration a requirement, and lawyers acting for the Association are in the process of preparing the necessary documents.

The church leaders involved in the association are not optimistic that the authorities will allow the association to register as a social organization.

"We have the word 'religious' in our name," Pastor Brukh told Keston, "and the Ministry of Justice has said it will not register a social organization with such a name."

The authorities in Belarus have taken a number of measures in the last few years to restrict the activities of what they call `non-traditional' churches, which usually means all denominations and faiths, other than Russian Orthodoxy.

Related Elsewhere:

Read the U.S. State Department's Annual Report on Religious Freedom in Belarus for 1999 and 2000.

Previous Christianity Today stories about religious freedom in various Russian republics include:

Salvation Army Closed in Moscow | Moscow court decision turns city into a 'legal never-never land' for Christian charity. (Jan. 11, 2001)

Will Putin Protect Religious Liberty? | Freedoms may be in danger in the new Russia. (July 26, 2000)

A Precarious Step Forward | Loosened rules in Russia may mean better times for religious freedom. (Feb. 3, 2000)

Russia's minority churches welcome liberal ruling on religion law | 1997 ruling against 'sects' upheld, but religious groups claim victory. (Dec. 30, 1999)

Stepping Back from Freedom | The new law restricting religion is part of Russia's struggle to redefine itself. (Nov. 17, 1997)

New Religion Law Fraught with Potential for Abuses | (Nov. 17, 1997)

Jehovah's Witness Verdict Stalled | (April 26, 1999 )