Stefan J. Bos, Worthy News Europe Bureau Chief
MINSK/BUDAPEST (Worthy News) — There was uncertainty about the future of one of the largest evangelical churches in Belarus Tuesday, June 2, after authorities ordered it to abandon its building in the capital Minsk.
New Life Church confirmed that it received a letter from the Property Maintenance and Repair Department (PMRD) of the Moscow District of Minsk demanding that the church leaves its current complex not later than Monday, June ,1 or face forcible eviction.
“The church needs to undertake necessary measures not later than June 1, 2009 to transfer the legal documents for its building and sign the deal of the building’s transfer and also vacate it,” the letter said. “In case the church does not, the Department will have to undertake necessary measures to settle the case in accordance to the current legislation.”
In an interview, the head of PMRD’s legal department, Ludmila Bulyga, suggested that the eviction could be carried out by security forces. “They (the church) need to vacate the building and the land since it was never zoned for religious usage. The court’s ruling will be carried out by the court’s officers, who have the full right to use law-enforcing agencies,” she said.
Human rights groups have expressed concerns about the situation, saying it could mark another stage in alleged wide spread persecution of devoted Christians in the former Soviet republic.
“The events… are likely to have a major impact on religious freedom throughout Belarus,” said Stuart Windsor , National Director of Britain-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide. “If New Life Church is forced to shut its doors, the hundreds of other churches across the country who have been denied the right to register will have real reason to fear the same fate,” Windsor warned.
The CSW official urged the European Union to intervene at a time when it “just launched its Eastern Partnership initiative which is meant to promote respect for human rights in countries including Belarus.” The EU, he said, should make it “absolutely clear that the religious liberty of the members of New Life Church must be defended and upheld.”
New Life Church, which comprises over a thousand active members, has been the target of repeated government fines and attempts to shut it down since it was established in the early 1990s, according to local Christians.
The latest ruling comes as part of a legal battle with the Minsk City Executive Committee which has been ongoing since 2005 after the church purchases a former cowshed to accommodate its growing congregation.
In addition, recent aid from the Netherlands was halted by authorities, the church said. In 2006, thousands of Belarusian Christians of different denominations across the country joined members of New Life Church in a hunger strike which lasted 23 days and resulted in hospitalization of several people involved in the hunger strike.
It comes amid international concerns over the policies of President Aleksandr Lukashenko who critics say has steadily consolidated his power through authoritarian means.
Critics link the reported crackdown on New Life and other evangelical groups to government restrictions on freedom of religion as well as limitations on freedom of speech and the press and demonstrations. Lukashenko has denied wrongdoing.