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BELARUS: Church building seized, religious freedom remains under attack

By Margaret Colson

Tab Media (25.02.2021) – https://bit.ly/3rac96L – Government authorities in Minsk, Belarus, on Feb. 17 seized the building of New Life Church, the largest and most influential evangelical church in the country of about 10 million.

The seizure of the church building was described by Bishop Leonid Voronenko of the Full Gospel Church in Belarus as a “perverse situation when those who do good suffer, but it is the reality we are experiencing.”

Police ordered the approximate 70 believers, praying in the church at the time, to vacate the building under threat of arrest.

New Life Church, undeterred by the loss of its building, a renovated cow shed, has been holding recent worship services outdoors in its parking lot.

Pastor Viacheslav Goncharenko posted a statement on the church’s Facebook page on Feb. 19 in response to the government’s actions.


Calling the situation a “serious moment” in the church’s life, Goncharenko said church members need to adapt to “new realities.”

“We are in fasting and praying for our church that God speaks His word and intervenes in this situation. He is our Deputy.”

Tensions have flared in the post-Soviet country since the August 2020 re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled for the past 26 years and is often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator.” Election results have been disputed, leading to widespread protests and alleged police brutality. Belarusian security forces arbitrarily detained thousands of people and systematically subjected hundreds to torture and abuse in the days following the 2020 presidential election, Human Rights Watch reported. Screams of tortured detainees could be heard in the streets outside, Amnesty International added.

Evident by the seizure of the New Life building, churches and church leaders are not immune to such mistreatment from government authorities. New Life Church “is known for its active public positions, including prayer events related to high profile social and political events,” said Michael Cherenkov, executive field director for Mission Eurasia. It’s a reputation that has been met with governmental reprisals, both in earlier years and now.

In a TAB Media Special Report, Cherenkov told TAB Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Davis Rash, that the confiscation of the church building is a “small part of a bigger picture of what’s going in Belarus” in terms of religious pressure and persecution.

The majority of Belarusians identify as Christian. Of the country’s roughly 10 million residents, 73 percent are Orthodox and 12 percent are Catholic, according to Pew Research Center data. Lukashenko describes himself as an “Orthodox atheist.”


Though the evangelical community is tiny, it is an “influential minority,” Cherenkov said.

Such influence means that evangelical churches are often seen as “enemies of the state,” said Cherenkov. The president of Belarus “sent this clear message to any evangelical church. ‘Don’t get involved because you will be punished; you will face serious consequences for your prophetic stance, your prophetic voice and your support for this protest movement.’”

Cherenkov said Lukashenko considers churches in his country “rebellious” and the government is sending a message: “I am watching over you.”

That’s quite literally true. A 2003 International Religious Freedom Report by the U.S. State Department said that while the Belarus Constitution provides for freedom of religion, that right is restricted in practice. That report noted the harassment of churches not affiliated with the Belarusian Orthodox Church, a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church and the only recognized Orthodox denomination in the country.

A law passed in 2002 requires churches to register and seek permission from government authorities for religious activities. The government repeatedly rejects registration of Protestant churches and other non-Orthodox denominations.

Without registration, many churches find it difficult, if not impossible, to rent or purchase property to conduct religious services. And many churches reject registration altogether based on religious freedom principles.

According to New Life Church’s website, the church was registered Dec. 22, 1992, by the Minsk City Executive Committee.


Catholic churches and leaders in Belarus have also endured political pressure and persecution in recent months.

On Aug. 15 “Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz said, ‘People have the right to know the truth’ [about election results],” Cherenkov said. Two weeks later, on Aug. 31, “Lukashenko punished him” as the border patrol denied the Catholic leader, a Belarus citizen, return entry into his homeland from Poland. “They punished him immediately and sent a very clear message to evangelical and orthodox people as well,” Cherenkov said.

The U.S. Embassy in Minsk posted a statement Feb. 22 denouncing the government’s crackdown on churches.

The statement calls on Belarus “to protect religious freedom and uphold the right of all faiths to practice freely.”

“We are concerned by the eviction of the New Life Church and recent pressure against religious clergy and laymen who exercise their fundamental freedoms. Belarus as a member of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) has agreed to protect all human rights and we urge authorities to stay true to their commitments,” the statement reads.

Cherenkov’s perspectives on religious persecution in Belarus are shared by many.

“It’s obvious they [government authorities] are trying to pressure the Church, which means the Church is being persecuted. Although no one speaks openly about it, nor did they when persecution was severe during the Soviet-era struggle against faith and Church. The facts show the situation is now similar,” said Bishop Yuri Kasabutsky, vicar-general and auxiliary of Belarus’s Minsk-Mogilev diocese, in an interview last September with The Tablet, an international Catholic news weekly.

Amid the political pressure and persecution, “God’s church … is the most powerful vehicle; it is the most powerful channel. People are hoping that the evangelical or Catholic church could be the agent of hope,” Cherenkov said.


Evangelicals, he said, are urging Belarus citizens not to forget past incidents of government atrocities. Christians were among those who participated in the Aug. 15 “chain of repentance,” stretching 15 kilometers from Kurapaty, where the Soviet inflicted atrocities on Belarusians, to Akrescina, a detention center infamous for holding political prisoners. Many who participated in the chain of repentance were holding Bibles or crosses.

“If you forget, it will repeat. …  So now they steal your voice; tomorrow they steal your freedom. Remember that; pray about that,” Cherenkov said.

In addition to urging Belarusians to remember past atrocities, Christian leaders in Belarus are pleading for prayer from the global community of believers.

“New Life Church is now paying a high price for being faithful. In this context, I ask your prayer support. Pray not just for New Life Church, but pray for all evangelical and for the Catholic and orthodox church,” said Cherenkov, who has family in Belarus.

“Pray specifically for bravery; they (Christians and church leaders) need it,” he said. Pray also for creativity, he urged. “In this context of extremely limited freedom, our people have to be creative in how to reach people — how to reach out to even their persecutors to tell them about Christ, about forgiveness, about grace, about the gospel of Jesus Christ. They have to be brave and creative.”

Such prayers, he believes, can lead to “spiritual, economic, political and cultural transformation” in Belarus.

“Let us be strong, united, brave and creative. Please pray about that.”

Listen to the Cherenkov interview in its entirety below.

Photo: from New Life Church website

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Call to the EU: “Assist Belarusians Seeking Democracy and Human Rights. Do more”

  • Reform movement facing crushing regime violence
  • THE EU AND ITS MEMBER STATES NEED TO DO MORE, The Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe and Human Rights Without Frontiers say.
  • Other NGOs requested to join their call to the EU. Send an email to secretariat.brussels@hrwf.org with the sentence



FOREF/ HRWF (20.11.2020) – Two international human rights organizations appealed to authorities in the European Union and the United States to assist the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, which they said was being “subjected to increasingly harsh brutality by the dictatorial regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka.”


“The citizens and leaders of democracies cannot allow security, police and prison officials of a European country to ruthlessly detain, torture and even beat to death peaceful demonstrators who want nothing more than the internationally-guaranteed right to a free and fair election,” wrote the Forum for Religious Freedom–Europe and Human Rights Without Frontiers.


“They must do whatever it takes to convince Lukashenka, and those who support him from abroad, to listen to and respect the Belarusian people’s demand to embark on needed political reforms, starting with a new, honest election.”


Since protests began in August, massive numbers of Belarusians from all walks of life have been arbitrarily detained, ill-treated, jailed or fined.


The OMON, or Special Purpose Police Force under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, assisted by police troops and even civilian regime employees have become more and more savage. Eventually, six young men have been killed, of whom at least two were beaten to death in the street or right outside their homes. It is believed that Lukashenka himself gave strict orders to use all means necessary to make the protests stop, thus sanctioning unrestricted violence.


According to the Viasna Human Rights Center, an independent monitoring group  (http://spring96.org/en), as of 15 November, 25,800 persons had been detained; on 15 November alone, 1,127 persons were detained. Approximately 24,000 of those detained had been sentenced to short prison terms (»administrative arrests«) for up to 15 days and/or fined. The state has initiated approximately 900 criminal cases against protestors. Hundreds have already been tried and sentenced to years in prison.


More than four thousand (4,000) complaints about torture and other grave abuses by the police and prison staff have been filed. Not one was investigated. Lukashenka told the country’s prosecutors on 9 September that, in times like these, “We don’t care about the law.” (https://nashaniva.by/?c=ar&i=258800&lang=ru)


But as violence against peaceful demonstrators has increased, international attention has decreased, a vector that serves repression not only in Belarus, but in other autocratic lands as well.  With the integrity of democracies, and indeed democracy itself on the line, robust support for the reform movement is of utmost urgency. While Lithuania and Poland strongly support the Belarusan movement against the dictatorship, Western governments and the EU need to do more.



Background:  One Stolen Election Too Far


For 26 years, Belarus (population: 9.8 million) has been ruled with an iron fist by Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who has kept many Soviet institutions (including the KGB) and an essentially Soviet economic system in place. For many years Belarus has had no forceful opposition, since those who could have threatened the president’s position have disappeared or been forced into exile in the late 1990s.


The country has been able to survive economically by maintaining strong ties with Russia, which has in effect subsidized Belarus’ economy and thus kept the president in power.


Elected in 1994, former state farm manager Lukashenka held a referendum in 1995, after which Soviet symbols were resurrected; Belarus is the only post-Soviet state that has kept the former Soviet flag and coat of arms. The referendum also effectively ensured that the national language, as during Soviet times, retained an inferior status vis-a-vis Russian.


In 1996, Lukashenka held a second, fraudulent referendum, which gave him literally unlimited, powers. Every official in government, the health system, the education and cultural institutions, in industry, military, police, and even the courts is appointed by Lukashenka, making him a bona-fide dictator. He openly refers to himself as the people’s »Daddy,« to whom all are indebted.  Lukashenka has built up a large security apparatus to repress freedom and change. The police, especially the riot police (OMON) and the internal security forces (the armed forces of the Ministry of the Interior) are very large in size and also armed and equipped as if the country were facing an imminent danger of a major civil war.


Lukashenka was reelected five times, each time claiming a larger percentage of the electorate than the previous one. In the run-up to the election on 9 August 2020, as expected, all potential serious competitors were sentenced to lengthy jail terms.  But then these candidates’ wives registered themselves as candidates, a strategy not seen as a serious threat to Lukashenka’s continued rule, because the candidates were women.


In the event, the opposition rallied behind one candidate, Sviatlana Cihanouskaya. The day following the election, the Central Electoral Commission announced that Lukashenka had won with 80 percent of the votes, a Soviet-like margin, which only reinforced the conviction of a majority that fair elections, and democracy itself, do not exist in Belarus.


Hundreds of thousands of voters, assisted by the »Golos« (Vote) website (https://belarus2020.org/home), which was able to produce statistically significant data, immediately reacted; large crowds, most of them women, took to the streets to protest this gross injustice, demanding Lukashenka’s resignation, as well as fresh, honest elections.


Since that time, marches of similar size have shaken the capital city of Miensk. They have been mirrored in all towns and even villages. The largest protest march was on 23 August with approximately 250,000 people taking part (www.DW.com).  Almost the same number was again achieved on 25 October (www.RFERL.org ), the day after the president-elect, Sviatlana Cihanouskaya, presented the regime with an ultimatum to leave or face countrywide strikes and civil disobedience.


Numerous workers at large and small government owned industries went on strike, in spite of threats of dismissal and even criminal charges. These strikes, and also »work slow« or »work by the rules« actions, present a real danger to the regime, given its chronic economic weaknesses.


Unprecedented are the marches of senior citizens, with tens of thousands of participants, the marches of grandmothers, and those of women and girls. The latter, in order to avoid being beaten or detained, began walking in small numbers carrying flowers rather than traditional white-red-white flags or dresses in those colors.


Also remarkable were the marches of disabled persons and their caregivers. Disabled people (e.g. in wheelchairs) are a rare sight in Belarusan streets, but now they, too, wanted to do express their desire to live in a free society.


The OMON arrested hundreds of participants at the large Sunday marches, and kept them in police lockups and pre-trial detention facilities (SIZO). The first wave of prisoners were tortured and kept in inhuman conditions. They were beaten with batons and kicked with heavy boots, insulted and humiliated. They were kept in cells overfilled to 4-8 times their regular capacity, and denied drinking water and sanitary facilities. Their families were denied information about their whereabouts.


One of the most famous cases was that of a woman basketball player, Yelena Leuchanka. She was eventually released and described the conditions in the prison: 19 women in a six-cot cell were deprived of matrasses. The sewage was cut off. She had a chance to meet the warden and asked what the reason was for making the lives of the detainees miserable, and who had given that order. The  warden replied that he had given the order himself, to make sure that the detainees for the future refrain from actions that would send them back to prison. (https://charter97.org/ru/news/2020/10/31/399039/)


Yet, the huge marches have continued unabated, while the number of arrests and detentions has increased. There were more and more »security« forces deployed in the streets. Most of them wear black SWAT uniforms with no identification marks. All wear balaclavas to mask their identity. Eventually, water canons, some with orange-colored water,  were employed. Scores of overfilled police busses took those arrested to the detention facilities, in which conditions have gradually worsened. Hundreds of relatives stood for hours on end in lines at the prison gate to give food and essential hygiene wares to their jailed loved ones.


All categories of citizens have protested in the streets. Many of those who held important functions in society like physicians, university professors, lawyers, journalists, musicians, and top athletes were detained. Their sin: having taken part in an »unauthorized mass event« or »carrying unauthorized symbols« (meaning the traditional white-red-white flag). Some have been even arrested for gathering in their court yards to listen to music and sing and dance.


For more information:


Dr. Aaron Rhodes, President, FOREF – aaronarhodes@gmail.com

Mr Peter Zoehrer, Executive Director, FOREF – office@foref-europe.org, Phone: +43 (0)6645238794

Mr. Willy Fautre, Director, HRWF – w.fautre@hrwf.org

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2020 Sakharov Prize awarded to the democratic opposition in Belarus

EU Reporter (24.10.2020) – The democratic opposition in Belarus has been awarded the 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. European Parliament President David Sassoli announced the laureates in the Brussels plenary chamber at noon today (22 October), following an earlier decision by the Conference of Presidents (president and political group leaders).


“Let me congratulate the representatives of the Belarusian opposition for their courage, resilience and determination. They have stood and still stay strong in the face of a much stronger adversary. But they have on their side something that brute force can never defeat – and this is the truth. So my message for you, dear laureates, is to stay strong and not to give up on your fight. Know that we are by your side,” President Sassoli said, following the decision.

“I would also like to add a word on the recent killing of one of this year’s finalists, Arnold Joaquín Morazán Erazo, part of the Guapinol environmental group. The group is opposing an iron oxide mine in Honduras. It is imperative that a credible, independent and immediate investigation is launched into this case and those responsible must be held to account,” he added.

Protesting against a brutal regime


The democratic opposition in Belarus is represented by the Coordination Council, an initiative of brave women, as well as prominent political and civil society figures. Read more about the laureates, as well as the other finalists here.


Belarus has been in the midst of a political crisis since the disputed presidential elections on 9 August, which led to an uprising against authoritarian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka and a subsequent brutal crackdown on demonstrators by the regime.

The Sakharov award ceremony will be held on 16 December.

On Wednesday (21 October), Parliament also adopted new recommendations calling for a comprehensive review of the EU’s relations with Belarus. Read more here.




The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is awarded each year by the European Parliament. It was set up in 1988 to honour individuals and organisations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is named in honour of Soviet physicist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov and the prize money is €50,000.


Last year, the prize was given to Ilham Tohti, an Uyghur economist fighting for the rights of China’s Uyghur minority.

Photo: Democratic forces in Belarus have been protesting the brutal regime since August

More information


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Belarus’s female revolution: how women rallied against Lukashenko

Protests aimed at toppling autocratic leader have been led by women and show no sign of slowing.


By Shaun Walker

The Guardian (12.09.2020) – https://bit.ly/3bXFJWD – One evening last week, a stylised image of the Belarusian opposition leader, Maria Kolesnikova, was projected on to the wall of a Minsk apartment block.


Mocked up to look like the famous Soviet war poster The Motherland Calls, the image created by Anna Redko shows Kolesnikova heroically holding out a torn passport – a reference to her actions on the border with Ukraine on Tuesday when Alexander Lukashenko’s security services tried to deport her.


“She decided on a powerful gesture. That’s why she is one of the opposition’s leaders and I’m the press secretary,” Ivan Kravtsov, one of two others with Kolesnikova who did get deported, told journalists in Kyiv the next day.


Kolesnikova is now in a KGB prison in Minsk, and her determination not to be forced into exile was the latest impressive act of defiance in a revolutionary moment that has, from the beginning, been led and defined by women. On Saturday afternoon, women holding flowers and posters gathered in Minsk to protest – some were detained by masked men in green uniforms. The Saturday demonstrations have become a regular occurrence before the main Sunday protest in the city centre, where for the past four weekends, more than 100,000 people have assembled.


It was a female candidate who rallied support against Lukashenko before last month’s elections. The autocratic leader had jailed or exiled the men who wanted to stand against him, but thinking a woman could not pose a real challenge, he allowed the wife of one of his opponents, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, on to the ballot. Along with Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of another candidate who fled Belarus after receiving threats, the three women travelled the country and won support for their simple message of facilitating political change.


Lukashenko’s misogynist rhetoric also served as a mobilising force. “The cynicism with which the current president expressed himself about them and their role, it insulted a lot of women,” said Kolesnikova in an interview at her campaign headquarters in central Minsk last month.


It was also women who provided the momentum for the protest movement’s rejuvenation after the horrific violence inflicted on demonstrators in the aftermath of Lukashenko declaring an implausible victory.


After three evenings of brutality from riot police, 250 women, dressed in white and holding flowers, stood defiantly on a roadside in central Minsk. Police left them untouched and the next day there were multiple rows of flower-waving women throughout the city.


In recent weeks, as most of its leaders have been forced out of Belarus, Kolesnikova has become the visible face of the movement, appearing fearless and cheerful despite the odds stacked against the protesters, regularly appearing at rallies until her kidnap-style arrest earlier this week.


Last month she said her role had been simply to show people that it was possible to demand political change. She said: “The west, Russia won’t help – we can only help ourselves. In this way it turned out that female faces became a signal for women, and men too, that every person should take responsibility.”

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BREAKING NEWS: BELARUS-RUSSIA: A Russian Jehovah’s Witness to be extradited from Belarus to Russia?


– Human Rights Without Frontiers (Brussels) and Forum for Religious Freedom Europe (FOREF, Vienna) are urging the international community to advocate against this extradition


HRWF (26.02.2020) – A Russian Jehovah’s Witness is under threat of being extradited from Belarus to Russia, a sinister precedent that must be urgently prevented, according to Human Rights Without Frontiers in Brussels and Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe (FOREF) in Vienna.


“The time for Belarus to stand up for religious freedom is now,” the two organizations said.


Nikolay Andreyevich Makhalichev, born 1 July 1984 in the city of Cherepovets (Vologda Region), was arrested and detained on the territory of the Republic of Belarus on 21 February 2020 sometime after 3.30 p.m.


On 31 January 2019, Nikolai was charged under Article 282.2(1) of the Russian Criminal Code: “Organisation of the activity of a social or religious association or other organization in relation to which a court has adopted a decision legally in force on liquidation or ban on the activity in connection with the carrying out of extremist activity.” This article is related to the ban of the movement of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia since 2017 based on the law against extremism.


Since then Russian authorities have been actively searching for him. Russian police conducted searches in the home where he is registered, but could never find him because by then he had already relocated to another part of Russia. In May 2019, they placed him on the wanted list in an effort to arrest him.


Mr Makhalichev had traveled to Belarus in his car together with three other people. He was arrested and detained upon crossing the border when his car was stopped by a government automobile inspectorate as part of a standard traffic stop and his driver’s license was taken to check for fines.


During the check, the officials asked for Mr Makhalichev’s passport and found that he is wanted in Russia.


The law enforcement forces did not return his passport and told him he would be detained until Russian authorities replied back to them. They put him in their patrol car and took him to the Gorodokskiy DDIA (2) in the Vitebsk Region of the Republic of Belarus: g. Gorodok, ul. Krasnoarmeyskaya, d. 25. The prosecutor was notified that he had been detained.


On 21 February 2020 the investigator in charge of the case against N. A. Makhalichev in Russia was notified that he had been arrested and detained.


He will be held until the Republic of Belarus prosecutor’s office receives the needed documents and an explanation from Russia. On this basis, it will be determined whether to turn him over to Russia or not.


On 22 February 2020 Mr Makhalichev, with the assistance of licensed lawyer V. A. Shuplyak, filed an application for asylum in the Republic of Belarus because he is being persecuted for his religious convictions in his country.


Between 2017 and 2020, about 250 Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses have applied for asylum in Finland.


As of Monday, Feb 24, 2020

35 JW in prison (26 in pretrial detention; 9 convicted and serving time in prison)

25 JW under house arrest

29 JW convicted (9 imprisoned, 8 fined, 12 other restrictions)


See the detailed cases of all JW in prison in Russia in the Database of FORB Prisoners of Human Rights Without Frontiers:


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