The government continued to detain and fine religious leaders for engaging in unregistered religious activities, surveil and scrutinize members of minority and unregistered religious groups, and deny registration to minority religious groups. According to independent religious experts, religious groups were reluctant to speak publicly on these matters, fearing intimidation or retribution from the government. Except for the BOC and the Roman Catholic Church, religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, and Buddhists, had difficulties obtaining buildings for worship, distributing religious literature, and proselytizing. The government failed to provide prisoners of some religious groups access to their clergy. Authorities limited the number and length of stay of foreign missionaries.
Jehovah’s Witnesses officials reported cases where police detained members of the community who were proselytizing. For example, police briefly detained and charged a member of the local Jehovah’s Witness community for holding an unsanctioned “demonstration” in the town of Hlybokae in May, but a local court later dismissed the charges and closed the case.
The Vitsebsk-based Hare Krishna community reported a local government ideology officer and other officials detained three of their believers on June 17, when they were sharing their religious views and distributing religious literature and other printed materials. The three were first transported to the local State Security Committee (KGB) offices and then moved to a police precinct, where police confiscated their materials, detained them for five hours, and released them without charges.
On September 1, police detained for several hours several Hare Krishna devotees dressed in robes and singing religious songs as they processed along the streets in Vorsha, according to Forum18, a Norwegian religious freedom nongovernmental organization. They were released without being charged.
The government continued to allow Roman Catholic priest Uladislau Lazar, accused of high treason in 2013, to work in the village of Kamen, but the charges remained pending and the case unresolved. The Catholic Church and the KGB continued to decline to release any information about the case.
Some Christian groups stated the registration requirements for religious groups restricted their activities, suppressed freedom of religion, and legalized criminal prosecution of individuals for their religious beliefs. According to some observers, the government’s guidelines for evaluating registration applications were general enough to give authorities a broad pretext for denying applications from groups they considered unacceptable. A number of local authorities, such as in Barysau, Mariyna Horka, and Lida, continued to refuse to negotiate registration agreements with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Authorities also continued to refuse registration to several Protestant communities, including a Baptist community in the town of Slutsk.
Many unregistered communities stated they maintained a low profile because of what they believed to be government hostility and fears of criminal liability, including imprisonment of members for up to two years. According to independent religious experts, many communities were reluctant to report abuses and restrictions, fearing intimidation and retribution. They also said some minority religious groups, for example, the Hare Krishnas, were reluctant to apply for registration because members were unwilling to provide their names as part of the registration application process for fear of intimidation and retribution by the authorities.
Authorities in Minsk registered one Buddhist community, Shen Chen Ling, of the Bon tradition. On February 17, OPRRNA registered the John Paul II Minsk Theological Academy, a higher educational institution of the Roman Catholic Church, to train clergy and lay people. In December the Minsk city authorities allocated land to the Church to build the academy.
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.
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.
Nontraditional religious groups said the procedure for registering residential premises for religious use remained cumbersome and arbitrary. For example, authorities denied permission to a registered Jehovah’s Witness community in Rechytsa to hold religious services at a private home. The government continued to warn or fine religious groups for violating the legal prohibition on organizing or hosting unauthorized meetings, especially in private homes.
On April 30, the Minsk regional court turned down an appeal from Jehovah’s Witness Andrei Kuzin to challenge a December 2014 fine of 3.75 million rubles ($202), which he received for organizing a religious meeting without permission from local authorities in his home in Barysau in November 2014. According to the Forum18 news service, Barysau ideology officer Ludmila Hornak stated “there was no such community as Jehovah’s Witnesses in Barysau, and there was no application for registration submitted to the city authorities” despite 11 earlier registration refusals.
On June 8, a court in Svetlahorsk fined Uladzimir Daineka and Yury Valadzenkou, presbyter and member, respectively, of a local Baptist community, 3.6 million rubles ($194) each for holding an unsanctioned religious gathering. According to local independent media outlets, on May 17, unidentified armed police officers broke into Daneika’s private home, interrupted a service, took down the names of all present, and charged the two individuals. Forum18 reported eight other community members were fined later that month for refusing to testify against Daineka and Valadzenkou. For example, authorities fined Lyubou Kundas, a member of the community, 1.44 million rubles ($78) for refusing to testify and answer who was reading the Bible when police arrived at the service. On August 24, a higher court upheld all fines.
On August 15, police interrupted a mass baptism ceremony held by a local Protestant community, the Church of Grace, at a lake in the Minsk region. After they charged the pastor with violating regulations for holding an unsanctioned mass event, police allowed the community to proceed with the ceremony, which officers closely monitored. No charges were brought to court.
On August 20, a Homyel district court fined Siarhei Nikalaenka, pastor and leader of the Transfiguration Church of God, a registered religious group, 3.6 million rubles ($194) for holding a religious service at leased facilities without permission from local authorities on May 31. Police interrupted the service, videotaped community members, recorded their passport information, and questioned them. On June 25, police searched Nikalaenka’s residence and confiscated the community’s paperwork and other printed materials. Authorities warned the pastor and his fellow church member Alyaksandr Chueu, whose home was also searched on June 28, they might face criminal charges of leading another, unregistered religious group – Christ the Savior Church – based on Nikalaenka’s publications on the internet, including on his personal social media accounts. Local ideology officer Ala Anisimava testified at a hearing on August 20 that she closely followed Nikalaenka’s publications and activities online and generally monitored and surveilled religious gatherings, including the one on May 31. According to religious freedom advocates, Anisimava was also behind the authorities’ decision to bar, effective June 11, the Transfiguration Church of God community from continuing to lease facilities for holding Sunday worship services.
According to various observers, government ideology officers charged with promoting official policies and views continued to scrutinize unregistered religious groups, including by monitoring the activities of members in their workplaces, but did not prosecute any.
Authorities allowed Jehovah’s Witnesses to hold a national convention in Minsk on July 24-25. Thousands of members from across the country reportedly attended the fifth state-approved convention without official interference. The community’s leaders reported local officials denied requests for smaller conventions to be held in some regional towns and in Minsk.
Religious groups reported they 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, remained difficult as well. For example, some Protestant communities reported they were only able to conclude short-term lease agreements with the owners of the facilities the communities rented, which allowed authorities to pressure owners to terminate or not renew lease agreements to prevent religious activities. Protestant groups said they were most severely affected; they were less likely to own property and their private homes were too small to accommodate their numbers.
There was no progress on the freeze placed on the assets of the NLC during the year. 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. The NLC leadership met with Minsk city authorities to continue negotiations on the status and operations of the Church.
The government continued to require students to use textbooks which representatives of nontraditional religious groups said promoted intolerance toward them. Leaders of minority communities said the language in one textbook was discriminatory, citing a chapter labeling groups such as Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of Maria, the White Brotherhood, and Jehovah’s Witnesses as “sects.” They said another textbook also labeled certain Christian denominations and Hare Krishnas as “sects.” The government made no changes to these textbooks despite requests from religious groups.
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 BOC was allowed to collect charitable donations, with no restrictions, in public as well as on its religious property, without interference from authorities. While the law did not restrict other religious groups from raising donations in public, in practice such groups limited their fundraising activities to their own places of worship or other properties. In past years, some religious groups had reported harassment from the authorities if they tried to raise donations at other locations. Orthodox literature was available countrywide. The BOC was able to proselytize freely, while other groups were occasionally harassed, even when they had been given authorization by local authorities to hold their events. The BOC was also allowed, unlike other religious groups, to participate in any government-sponsored public event without the need to seek prior approval from authorities.
Human rights groups continued to report that, while authorities generally granted BOC or Roman Catholic clergy permission to visit believers in jail on a regular basis, and many prisons had designated Orthodox religious facilities, prison administrations denied believers of other faiths, including Protestants and Muslims, visits by relevant clergy.
On June 22, President Lukashenka attended and spoke at the unveiling of a memorial at the site of the Trostenets Nazi death camp complex near Minsk. He condemned Nazism and intolerance.
On January 22, the head of OPRRNA publicly stated foreign Roman Catholic priests working in the country were “engaging in politics,” and “not approving of local laws, leadership, and our country.” He added the government was not against “inviting foreign clergy to serve in the country” if they complied solely with their religious duties. He also said the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church “was not interested in training more local clergy at their seminaries in Pinsk and Hrodna.” On January 30, the Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops in the country protested the OPRRNA head’s statements, describing his remarks as an “unjustified insult of the Catholic Church and incitement of interfaith and interethnic hatred.”
On January 30, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei met with Apostolic Nuncio Claudio Gugerotti. After the latter expressed concerns about possible interpretations of officials’ statements about the Roman Catholic clergy, Makei lauded the “constructive and balanced” work of the Church and said the government hoped the Catholic Church would train more local clergy to reduce the need for Polish priests.
At a press conference on January 29, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka expressed his “dissatisfaction over service of some Polish priests in the country.” On April 29, at his annual address to the nation and parliament, he criticized clergy, who lacked their own families, for advocating for more children and strong family values. He also charged clergy with “fooling around on the sly somewhere,” adding that “children are necessary [for one] to be human and you are not human without children,” and calling the clergymen “benighted.” The BOC and Roman Catholic Church separately dismissed the attacks made against their clergy.
Religious groups said the government continued to apply visa regulations in ways that restricted the ability of foreign missionaries to live and work in the country and limited the groups’ capacity to carry out humanitarian and charitable projects.
On July 31, without explanation, border officers denied the United States-based head of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church entry into the country, although his previous annual visits had been approved. The Autocephalous Orthodox Church’s communities, whose previous registration applications authorities had denied, remained unregistered.
On October 29, a court in Pinsk fined two local residents 18 million rubles ($970) each for vandalizing seven gravestones at a local Christian cemetery on July 11. The two individuals pleaded guilty, reimbursed all damages, and restored the gravestones prior to the sentencing.
On November 11, police arrested three people in Polatsk, charging them with destroying 63 graves at a local Christian cemetery on November 7. The case was ongoing at year’s end.
A police investigation into a case of vandalism at a Jewish center in Homyel that took place at the end of 2014 did not yield any results. Police did not identify any perpetrators and closed the case.