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Belarus: Church Destruction Sparks Outrage

A newly built church in western Belarus was to have been consecrated last week. Instead, it and a parish house were bulldozed on orders from local authorities who cited a violation of planning regulations. The church's supporters claim its destruction amounts to religious persecution.

Prague, 7 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The first weekend in August was meant to have been a time of celebration for a group of Christians in the Belarusian village of Pahranichny, close to the border with Poland.

Their Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (BAPTs) was set to have a newly built church consecrated. Instead, Father Yan Spasyuk found his parish house and church surrounded by armed men in camouflage uniforms and then razed.

It couldn't have come as much of a surprise, however. It was the second attempt by local authorities in a week to destroy the structure. During the first attempt, in late July, supporters staged a sit-in and managed to hold off the bulldozers.

Local officials say Spasyuk violated planning regulations. They say permission was given to build a private house on the property, not a church.

The bulldozing incidents sparked protests, as did the arrests of several journalists who attempted to cover the story. One of the journalists, Valery Shchukin -- who is also an opposition activist -- was ordered to be held in custody for 15 days.

The Belarusian PEN Center, a nongovernmental organization that defends journalists' rights, denounced Shchukin's arrest as a violation of the right of an individual to perform his professional duties. The group said Shchukin was only reporting on what it called the "scandalous attempt by the local authorities to destroy" Spasyuk's church building.

Yesterday, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency of the U.S. government, protested the church demolition. The commission's co-chairman, U.S. Representative Christopher H. Smith (Republican, New Jersey), called the razing "an outrageous crime." "Is nothing sacred in Belarus today, that the regime has to stoop so low as to level a parish church?" Smith asked.

Alyaksandr Antonyuk is chairman of the Hrodna branch of the Belarusian Helsinki Commission and an adviser to Spasyuk. He said Spasyuk was forced into building a private house to use as a place of worship because BAPTs was denied registration in Belarus as a religious community. "As soon as the authorities learned he was building a church, they began to destroy it. First, there was a warning saying he should pull down the building within 24 hours, which was completely unrealistic. After that, troops were brought into [Pahranichny], all the roads were blocked off, [and] people were not allowed into [Pahranichny]. The servicemen were armed, too. Police and machinery were brought in, and the church began to be destroyed," Antonyuk said.

The Keston Institute, a British nongovernmental organization that monitors religious freedom in the former Soviet bloc, says BAPTs has around 70 parishes with some 10,000 members throughout Belarus, but that the authorities have repeatedly denied its requests for official registration.

The Keston Institute's Felix Corley, whose reports brought the Pahranichny incident to wide attention, said the church is caught in a web of restrictions. "Father Yan [Spasyuk] would not be in a position to apply for permission to build a religious building because his church has been denied registration. You cannot build a religious building unless you are a religious organization which has registration. So it's a vicious circle. They won't give him registration, and he can't build a church because he doesn't have registration," Corley said.

Autocephalous, or self-governing, churches get their name from the Greek words meaning "self" and "head" and are independent of other churches. There are several Orthodox autocephalous churches in the world, most of them national.

The Belarusian church was set up after World War I with the brief emergence of an independent Belarusian state. Following World War II, it existed in exile, mainly in the U.S. and Canada. Though close to Russian Orthodoxy in terms of beliefs and rites, there's little love lost between the two denominations.

Antonyuk said the Belarusian Autocephalous Church is a challenge to the Belarusian Orthodox Church, a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church that enjoys official favor in line with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's stated pro-Russian position.

Antonyuk said Russian Orthodox pressure is largely to blame for the current problems. "The Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church conducts its religious ceremonies according to Orthodox tenets. They have the same canons as the Russian Orthodox Church. The only difference is that the service is conducted in the Belarusian language. Of course, if the autocephalous church -- even just one religious community -- was registered, it would start mushrooming," Antonyuk said.

To add to its troubles, BAPTs is squabbling internally, with disputes over leadership following the death in June of the previous head of the church, Metropolitan Mikalai.

And things look set to get harder still for Spasyuk and his supporters -- and many other small religious denominations -- if and when the upper house of the Belarusian parliament gives final approval to a new law that would tighten requirements for registering religious communities. "Only groups which have an administration or headquarters registered in the country will be allowed to teach religion, publish literature, and that kind of thing, and only groups which had registered congregations back in 1982 will be able to form headquarter organizations. So many of the newer Protestant denominations especially will be very severely impacted by this new law, if it goes through this autumn," Corley said.

Spasyuk himself is now lying low, but RFE/RL's Belarusian Service spoke to him at the end of July when he said he'd met with representatives of other religious groups that have also been encountering difficulties. "We understood that we can't do without each other. Only all these faiths united in one group can tolerate this harassment," Spasyuk said.

Antonyuk said they'll challenge the legality of the demolition through the courts, though he's doubtful they'll succeed.

(Bohdan Andrusyshyn of RFE/RL's Belarusian Service contributed to this report.)