There were reports of abuses of religious freedom, including religious detainees. The government continued to violate the religious rights of members of several religious groups, but, in contrast to previous years, there was less public reporting and coverage of violations of religious freedom due to self-censorship by religious communities and individual believers. Many stated that their reluctance to report violations was caused by fear of further intimidation and retribution and hope that repression would end if they withheld complaints.
The government often restricted peaceful assembly for religious activities. In November an independent group of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant believers complained to the Minsk city prosecutor that security officers prevented them from praying peacefully in downtown Minsk for the release of political prisoners. Officers in plain clothes with no identification dispersed the group a number of times, swore at them, and threatened them with prosecution. On November 17, a court in Minsk sentenced religious activists Alyaksandr Makaeu and Alyaksandr Kalyanau, who prayed the day before and were detained, to five days in jail and to a fine of 150,000 rubles ($50), respectively.
As in the past, the most common government charge against religious leaders was organizing or hosting an unauthorized meeting. The law allows persons to gather to pray in private homes, but it imposes restrictions on holding rituals, rites, or ceremonies in such locations and prior permission from local authorities is required. Protestant and non-BOC Orthodox congregations frequently were fined or warned for operating illegally.
On January 26, the head of the OPRRNA called upon local authorities to closely monitor Protestant communities so they would neither engage in political activities nor use residential or other unauthorized premises for worship. He also claimed that some Catholic priests continued to violate laws and engage in political activities, and he cautioned authorities against selling buildings to religious communities that could be used for what the government deemed to be illegal purposes. Given the almost total lack of political activism arising from religious communities, the real intent of the “monitoring,” which was carried out by obtrusive nonbelievers, was to control and provide a low but persistent level of intimidation and harassment.
On September 20, Baptist Pastor Alyaksei Abramovich was fined 700,000 rubles ($230) for leading a religious service at his private residence in Zhodzina. On August 14, police and the local chief ideology officer raided the Baptists’ Sunday worship service and confiscated religious literature. After local authorities had repeatedly denied registration applications from the church, the community (which is a member of the unregistered Baptist Council of Churches) decided to hold worship services anyway. Subsequently authorities subjected the church to harassment, along with other churches of the council, on multiple occasions. Similarly, police raided a Baptist church in Homyel and a congregation in Kastyukovichy in February, and authorities fined a pastor in Homyel 1,050,000 rubles ($335).
On May 27, the head of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, criticized as “incomprehensible” the Minsk authorities’ arbitrary decision to change the regular route of the annual Corpus Christi procession. Authorities eventually allowed believers to march along the central avenue. Kondrusiewicz criticized authorities for “directly interfering” in the liturgy and “disrespecting” the faithful.
A lawsuit against the Charismatic New Life Church (NLC) remained pending at year’s end. In 2009 a Minsk district court fined NLC Pastor Hancharenka 420,000 rubles ($138) for denying government officials access to the premises of the NLC, and the church’s appeals to higher courts were unsuccessful. After the community defied the eviction order and banned officials from entering its property, environmental officials charged the community with contaminating the area with petroleum products. In 2010 a Minsk district court fined the NLC 8.75 million rubles ($2,884) for pollution and ordered it to pay 257 million rubles ($84,700) in environmental damages and litigation costs. The church’s renewed legal appeals were again unsuccessful. On February 28, the Minsk City Economic Court ordered the NLC to pay the environmental damages before March 7 or the court would freeze the NLC’s assets. The NLC did not comply, but no further court action against the church followed.
On March 26, riot police briefly detained NLC lawyer Syarhey Lukanin for holding a public evangelical service in central Minsk and transported him to a precinct where he was fingerprinted. Police threatened Lukanin with criminal charges for illegal street preaching, but released him three hours later without charge.
The government sometimes engaged in acts of religious insensitivity or intolerance and regularly failed to criticize other perpetrators of such acts. In private conversations, government officials frequently referred to those other than the Orthodox, Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, and Muslims as members of nontraditional religious groups, and frequently used the derogatory term “sect” when referring to such groups, although it is not an official designation.
The government, and especially its ideology officers, targeted and harassed unregistered religious communities. Ideology officers are charged with promoting official state ideology and work at all levels of government and in all state enterprises and institutions. Independent religious experts asserted that authorities increasingly warned unregistered religious communities that they could face criminal liability and up to two years in jail for acting on behalf of unregistered organizations. In the first half of the year, at least eight religious activists, mostly Protestants, received prosecutors’ warnings that they could be penalized for unregistered religious activity. For example, in Homyel authorities warned a leader and four members of a local Baptist community who acted on behalf of an unregistered organization. The unregistered community met and worshipped in a private house, distributed religious literature, and openly promoted Protestant beliefs.
Throughout the year, the government monitored peaceful minority religious groups, especially those labeled as foreign or cults. Credible sources reported that state security officers often attended Protestant services to conduct surveillance.
A government decree specifies measures to maintain public order and safety during general public gatherings. Some officials cited the decree as a basis for canceling or refusing to extend agreements with religious groups for the use of their facilities. Throughout the year it remained difficult, particularly for unregistered groups, to rent a public facility and obtain official permission to hold religious services in leased facilities. Protestant communities suffered the most from this decree, because they were less likely to own property and needed to rent public space when their members were too numerous to meet in private homes.
Many religious groups continued to experience problems renting, purchasing, or registering properties to establish places of worship or to build churches, and they experienced difficulty with re-acquiring state controlled religious properties. Groups also encountered difficulty legally converting residential property to religious use.
Several Protestant churches and nontraditional groups were at an impasse, as the government denied permission to convert their properties to religious use because they were not registered, but the groups were unable to register due to the lack of a legal address. For example, local authorities in Barysau, Vileyka, Zhabinka, Lida, Mikashevichy, Maladzechna, Pinsk, and Slonim denied registration to Jehovah’s Witnesses because they declared their locations were in private residences. In all cases authorities refused either to designate land plots for temple construction, to assist with searching for premises for purchase or rent, or to register communities in residential property.
The government did not return buildings (including religious buildings) seized during the Soviet and Nazi periods if the buildings currently were used for sports or cultural activities, or if the government had nowhere to move the current occupants. For example, most of the Jewish community’s requests for the return of synagogues, which were in use as theaters, museums, sports complexes, and (in one case) a beer hall, were refused.
Although groups of believers of various denominations held prayers in front of a former Bernardine monastery complex in downtown Minsk, authorities continued to work on converting the complex into a hotel and entertainment center.
By law citizens are allowed to proselytize and may speak freely about their religious beliefs, but in practice authorities often interfered with, and sometimes punished, individuals who proselytized on behalf of registered or unregistered religious groups. Authorities regulated every aspect of proselytizing and distribution of religious literature.
Observers expressed concern that arbitrary application of government visa regulations affected the ability of missionaries to live and work in the country. A number of foreign missionaries, clergy, and charity workers faced government obstacles, including deportation and visa refusal or revocation. These government impediments affected Catholic and Protestant denominations the most, reducing the number of Catholic clergy permitted in the country and limiting the humanitarian and charitable projects of (Western) Protestant churches. For example, in December authorities did not extend religious visas to two Catholic priests serving in the Pinsk and Minsk dioceses, and shortened from one year to three months the period of visa validity for a number of other foreign Catholic priests. Archbishop Kondrusiewicz expressed his concerns over the situation and stressed that it was yet another point of pressure from the government.
Authorities frequently questioned foreign missionaries and humanitarian workers, as well as the local citizens who worked with them, about the sources and uses of their funding. There also were credible reports that security personnel followed foreign workers and monitored services led or attended by foreign workers.
The government arbitrarily applied a variety of laws and regulations against religious leaders. For example, officers of the regional department of financial investigations summoned Catholic priest Vyachaslau Barok in Rasony on December 29. An anonymous report alleged that Barok engaged in an illegal tourist business. The claims stemmed from Barok's frequent foreign religious pilgrimages organized by his parish; however, the government did not bring charges against him by year’s end. In another case, in July Archpriest Ihar Prylepski, a leader of the Orthodox community of St. Apostles Peter and Paul in a village near the town of Vyaleika, was fined 700,000 rubles ($230) for refusing to be fingerprinted and disobeying police orders.
The government continued to require students to use textbooks that promoted religious intolerance, especially toward nontraditional religious groups. Leaders of Protestant communities criticized language in one textbook as discriminating against Protestants. One chapter included a paragraph labeling groups such as Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of Maria, the White Brotherhood, and Jehovah’s Witnesses with the derogatory term “sects.” The Ministry of Education continued to use another textbook that labeled certain Protestant denominations and Hare Krishnas as sects. The government made no changes to these books despite the Protestant communities’ requests that they be changed.