MINSK -- Minsk city officials have ordered an embattled evangelical church to pay a $100,000 fine for damaging the environment, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports.
The Nature Protection Committee in the Minsk mayor's office said significant amounts of oil have been detected in the ground where the New Life Evangelical Church stands, and church officials should therefore pay an "ecological fine."
Minsk authorities visited the church on May 6 and informed church leaders about the fine, which they refused to pay. City officials said soil samples from the church grounds were taken, though without anyone from the church being present.
Church leaders said the building is near the site of an old junkyard for vehicles and it was not the church's responsibility to control the quality of the soil.
Church lawyer Syarhey Lukanin told RFE/RL that the "ecological fine" is an economic sanction that seeks to shut down the church.
Minsk authorities tried to take possession of the church building last summer. In August, a Minsk court ruled that the building was privatized by church officials illegally in the early 1990s. City officials then tried repeatedly to force the congregation out of the building.
But members of the congregation stayed in the church around the clock for several weeks to prevent city authorities from seizing it.
The building -- which was a barn in the Soviet era -- is located in the Minsk suburbs. Church officials first began fending off attempts by the city to take over the building in 2007.