The government continued to deny registration to minority religious groups, detained and fined religious leaders for engaging in unregistered religious activities, and surveilled and harassed members of minority and unregistered religious groups. Except for the BOC and the Roman Catholic Church, religious groups had difficulties obtaining buildings for worship, distributing religious literature, and proselytizing. The government failed to provide access to prisoners for clergy of some religious groups. Authorities used visa regulations to limit the number and length of stay of foreign missionaries.
The case against Catholic priest Uladislau Lazar for high treason remained unresolved. Lazar had been arrested in 2013 for allegedly handing money and material valuables to an individual accused of spying for a foreign state. After months in prison, he was released from custody late in 2013, but placed under house arrest with a ban on travel. Despite this house arrest and travel ban, the Catholic Church was able to post him to the town of Vileika and later to move him to the village of Kamen, where he remained as of the end of the year. He and others involved in his case refused to make any comments about the case pursuant to a non-disclosure agreement. Neither the Catholic Church nor the Committee for State Security (KGB) released any information about the case. As of December, the government had not brought the case to trial.
Jehovah’s Witnesses officials reported eight cases where police detained members of the community who were proselytizing. In one of these cases, police detained two foreign Witnesses, both women, in Dragichyn on August 7, and on August 8 a local district court ruled they had violated the law on mass gatherings and pickets. On October 9, the regional court upheld this decision and ruled foreign citizens did not “have the right to express their religious beliefs in public” without prior permission from authorities.
Authorities continued to delay granting clergy permission to visit members of the democratic opposition and human rights and civil society groups incarcerated for political reasons. When such visits were granted, prison authorities closely monitored meetings, private conversations, and religious confessions. According to the religious monitoring group Forum 18, Protestant pastors reported difficulties in accessing prisoners, and imams were never allowed to visit Muslim prisoners. A senior official in charge of prison management told Forum 18 access was “only possible for Orthodox and Catholic priests” as other religions had “a negative influence over the inmates.”
Some Christian groups stated the registration requirements for religious groups severely restricted their activities, suppressed freedom of religion, and legalized criminal prosecution of individuals for their religious beliefs. A number of local authorities continued to refuse to negotiate registration agreements with Jehovah’s Witnesses, particularly in Pinsk, Barysau, Navalukaml, and Lida. Authorities also continued to refuse registration to several Buddhist communities.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported three cases of law enforcement officials interrupting religious meetings without bringing charges against any congregation members.
Nontraditional religious groups said the procedure for registering residential premises remained cumbersome and arbitrary in practice. The government continued to charge religious group leaders with violating the legal prohibition on organizing or hosting unauthorized meetings, especially in private homes. Authorities fined or issued written warnings to Protestant and non-BOC Orthodox congregations for operating illegally.
On January 28, three community leaders were charged with organizing an unsanctioned service, and a local court fined them up to 3.25 million rubles ($236) for a 2013 event where 10 police officers had entered a private home and interrupted a pre-Christmas service of the local unregistered evangelical Christian Baptist community in Homyel. Police confiscated a Bible, wrote down names of all members of the church, and selectively interrogated a number of them. In a separate hearing on January 30, the court fined the home owner 1.3 million rubles ($94) for improper use of residential property. The four Baptists appealed their fines; however, courts rejected the appeals in February.
Authorities in Homyel approved one application for permission to use private homes for religious activities by Jehovah’s Witnesses, while authorities denied similar applications in Mahilyou, Ragachou, Babruisk, and Baranavichy.
Vyachaslau Hancharenka, senior pastor of the charismatic NLC, succeeded in obtaining a meeting with a representative of the Minsk city government, but reported no progress on the freeze placed on the assets of the NLC since 2010. The city did not renew attempts to evict the church from its premises. The NLC continued to use the space for religious purposes but was still unable to obtain proof of ownership from authorities and still had no access to electricity.
Government “ideology officers” charged with promoting official policies and views continued to target and harass unregistered religious groups, including by monitoring the activities of members in their workplaces.
While reports of fines for activity by unregistered religious groups were isolated, many unregistered communities stated they kept out of public sight because of what they believed to be government hostility and because they could face criminal liability and their leaders could be imprisoned for up to two years.
On February 7, authorities deregistered the charitable organization established by Catholic layman Alyaksei Shchadrou to shelter homeless persons in the Hrodna region following frequent visits and inspections by local police, tax authorities, and fire department and sanitary inspection officers. Shchadrou had been charged in 2013 with establishing and leading an unregistered religious organization and with setting up facilities for religious services by establishing his shelter. Those charges were dropped once Shchadrou registered his shelter as a charitable organization.
The government continued to monitor minority religious groups, especially those it labeled “foreign” or “cults.” According to religious leaders, state security officers often attended Protestant services to conduct surveillance, which group members described as intimidation and harassment.
The media reported police stopped and searched several Jehovah’s Witnesses for preaching in public venues in various localities across the country during the year.
Authorities allowed Jehovah’s Witnesses to hold a convention in Minsk in July. Thousands of members from across the country reportedly attended the fourth state-approved convention without official interference. The community’s leaders reported that local officials denied requests for conventions to be held in September and October in Minsk, Mahilyou, Homyel, Vitsebsk, Navapolatsk, and Hrodna.
Religious groups, especially Protestants, said they remained cautious about proselytizing and distributing material due to the general atmosphere of intimidation, fear of retribution, and other possible limitations. Regional and municipal authorities in a few cities issued warning letters to Jehovah’s Witnesses who reported the letters demanded they cease their religious activity and discussions about the Bible.
On May 17, police briefly detained several individuals engaged in prayer, including Leanid Akalovich, a priest who had come to the Theological Institute to lay flowers at a memorial honoring the leader of the early 20th century local Autocephalous Orthodox Church in central Minsk. Police released all without charge.
Religious groups continued to experience problems renting, purchasing, or registering properties to establish places of worship. Converting residential property to religious use was also difficult. Renting a public facility to hold religious services, particularly for unregistered groups, also remained difficult. Protestant groups were most severely affected; they were less likely to own property and their private homes were too small to accommodate their numbers.
Groups also encountered obstacles to regaining ownership of religious properties confiscated during the Soviet period. The government continued its policy of not returning buildings, including religious buildings, seized during the Soviet and Nazi periods if those buildings were in use for sports or cultural activities, or if the government had no place to move the occupants. The government did not offer compensation for the seized buildings. OPRRNA continued to raise concerns about the BOC failing to maintain its religious buildings included in the official list of cultural and historical heritage protection sites. In particular, OPPRNA cited cases of illegal renovation, abandonment of dilapidated wooden churches, and construction of new buildings next to derelict churches by the BOC.
Local authorities continued to make decisions on returning property, mostly to Catholic and Orthodox churches, based on requests from local religious communities. There were some cases where local authorities were willing to return former Jewish property but there was no organized community or funds available to maintain the buildings.
In practice the right of educational institutions to cooperate with registered religious groups was limited to the BOC, which was the only religious group to sign a concordat with the government. School administrators had the authority to invite BOC priests to lecture to students, organize tours of BOC facilities, and participate in BOC festivities, programs, and humanitarian projects. A program of cooperation between the MOE and the BOC provided for joint projects for the spiritual and moral education of students based on BOC traditions and history.
The government continued to require students to use textbooks which representatives of nontraditional religious groups said promoted intolerance toward them. Leaders of Protestant communities said the language in one textbook was discriminatory, citing one chapter labeling groups such as Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of Maria, the White Brotherhood, and Jehovah’s Witnesses as “sects.” Another textbook also labeled certain Protestant denominations and Hare Krishna as “sects.” The government made no changes to these textbooks despite requests from Protestant groups.
Religious groups continued to say the government’s inconsistent application of visa regulations affected the ability of missionaries to live and work in the country, especially Catholic clergy, and limited humanitarian and charitable projects, especially those of foreign Protestant groups. The authorities continued to shorten visa validity from the regular one-year duration to a six- or three-month duration and sometimes refused to extend visas for clergy already working in the country. Authorities stated their actions were based on complaints from parishioners about foreign priests’ poor knowledge of the Russian or Belarusian languages. Religious freedom activists, however, said in the western region of the country the small Catholic communities were often fluent in Polish.
On September 24, OPRRNA made a public statement at a government meeting expressing its concern to the Catholic Church regarding the continued number of foreign priests practicing in the country rather than locally educated clergy. While welcoming a reduction in the number of foreign priests since 2013, OPRRNA pointed to the fact 126 out of the 430 practicing priests had come from Poland. The government previously had refused permission to Polish priest Roman Schulz to continue to work in a Mahilyou parish after he had been there for seven years, and denied permission to a Franciscan Order priest who had been invited to serve in Ivianets. Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the Metropolitan of Minsk-Mahilyou, on April 15, stated authorities gave no explanation for rejecting these two visa applications. After protests by parishioners, the government reversed itself and extended the visa for Father Schulz.
On June 8, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka presided over a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a memorial at the site of the Trostenets Nazi death camp complex near Minsk and the laying of a time capsule at the site. Lukashenka stated the memorial “should become a site of pan-European significance,” and serve as a vehicle for the memory of the victims, in order to prevent the repetition of similar events. He stated “ideas of xenophobia, dominance, and ethnic intolerance should never triumph.” The president of the World Jewish Congress also attended the ceremony.
Protestant communities continued to complain of harassment by the authorities, stating they continued to question foreign missionaries and humanitarian workers, as well as the local citizens who worked with them, about the sources and uses of their funding. Security personnel also continued to monitor religious services led or attended by foreign workers.