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Belarusian High Court Upholds Verdict Against Church

Evangelical Christians at the church have gone on hunger strike to prevent authorities from seizing the property
MINSK -- The Belarusian Supreme Court has upheld a lower court's verdict imposing an environmental fine on the embattled New Life Evangelical Church, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports.

The church received an official letter on July 12 from Supreme Court Deputy Chairman Valery Kalinkovich informing it of the decision that fines the church the equivalent of $2,900 for "damaging the environment."

In May, the Minsk Maskouski district court ruled that the church has to pay the fine because municipal authorities found it responsible for a high level of oil products in the soil around the church building.

Church leaders dismissed responsibility for the pollution, saying it was there before the church was established.

Syarhey Lukanin, the church's lawyer, said at the trial that land near the church was previously used as a junkyard for discarded cars, which might have polluted the soil. The parishioners bought the building, a former barn, and renovated it before establishing the church.

Lukanin said the church -- which is located in the Minsk suburbs -- owns the building but not the land on which it was built, and therefore cannot bear any responsibility for the soil contamination.

Minsk authorities have been trying to take possession of the church building since 2007.

Church members have staged several hunger strikes and, during 2008 and 2009, held sit-ins inside the building for several days to prevent authorities from
seizing it.