Authorities in Belarus targeted multiple Christian churches with raids in recent months and may file criminal charges against one pastor for worshipping without permission.
Belarusian police and a riot squad raided a May 31 Sunday service at the Reformed Orthodox Transfiguration Church in Gomel, claiming the meeting was unauthorized, Forum 18 reported. On Aug. 16, BosNewsLife reported the church’s pastor, Sergei Nikolaenko, may face criminal charges.
“They were too hasty—they didn’t wait for permission from the city authority to conduct religious services,” Dmitry Chumakov, the official in charge of religious affairs at Gomel Regional Executive Committee, told Forum 18.
Officials fined Nikolaenko in June for the “unapproved religious meeting,” BosNewsLife reported. Weeks earlier, authorities also raided a Council of Churches Baptist congregation in Svetlogorsk and fined a member there. According to Forum 18, that church meets without permission.
Such raids are not typical, according to part-time pastor Anatoly Chukhalionok who lives in Minsk.
“We hear about it every once in a while,” he said.
Belarus, a former Soviet bloc country, is a landlocked nation bordering Russia and Ukraine. Its communist past shows in theBelarusian economy and the presence of security forces still known as the KGB.
President Alexander Lukashenko, nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator,” has ruled the totalitarian country since 1994. He has orchestrated a crackdown on free speech and assembly, especially since his 2010 reelection, according to OpenDoors U.K., which ranked Belarus 42 on the World Watch List of persecutors.
The Belarusian Orthodox Church is the largest denomination in the country and enjoys preferential treatment, including access, financial support, and the best locations for their churches. Only about 1 percent of the population is evangelical Christian, according to Mission Eurasia.
Belarus experienced revival during the 1990s, but in 2002 the government imposed new restrictions on religion and various forms of religious institutions, even though the constitution protects freedom of religion. The restrictions include requiring churches to register, an attempt to hinder their growth. Even registered churches must constantly renew permission to meet. The changes were an attempt to confine church activity within the walls of a church building, which made it difficult for denominations and groups that didn’t own facilities.
Chukhalionok said most churches go through the expense and bureaucracy necessary to register even though it can take months or years, but unregistered churches “can and do exist.” He has worked with multiple unregistered congregations.
But the country’s strict laws often are only selectively enforced. For example, Chukhalionok confirmed home Bible studies are illegal under current law, but said, “I’ve never heard of it being enforced.”
Chukhalionok couldn’t speak to the possible motivation for the raid on Nikolaenko’s church. But he said in some instances politics prompts authorities to applying the law. One Reformed Baptist pastor outspoken about politics spent a few days in prison on a charge of holding church services without permission, Chukhalionok said.
— by Julia A. Seymour