By Stefan J. Bos, Worthy News Europe Bureau Chief
MINSK/BUDAPEST (Worthy News)– European ambassadors to Belarus have met with the leader of New Life Church in the capital Minsk to discuss "threats" from authorities to "destroy" one of the country's largest evangelical churches by confiscating its building, a former cowshed, church officials said in a statement obtained by Worthy News Thursday, August 27.
New Life Church, which has some 1,000 active members, confirmed that European Union officials from 15 member states and the European Commission met Pastor Slava Goncharenko Tuesday, August 25, in the French embassy in Minsk.
"Pastor Goncharenko was asked questions concerning the conflict with city authorities," and whether they had offered "a new ground or building," as reported by state-run television, the church explained.
The pastor reportedly told diplomats that New Life had not been offered an "equivalent exchange" for its current place of worship, and that church members have "no trust" in promises. "Meaningful dialogue with the authorities is possible in the event that everything will be returned to our church, [including what has been] taken illegally," Pastor Goncharenko said he explained at the meeting.
The talks were attended by ambassadors of Bulgaria, Hungary, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, France, Czech Republic, Sweden, Estonia, and a European Commission official, sources close to the meeting added.
Tensions surrounding New Life underscore a wider government crackdown on Protestant churches and evangelical Christians in Belarus in the last decade, according to local Christians.
New Life said it has been trying to obtaina building since 1999 when the authorities forbade Protestant churches to rent places in Minsk. "Not having any opportunity to have services in indoor places, the church had to hold services for a long time in the open air in different seasons."
Eventually, in 2002, the growing congregation managed to purchase a former cowshed building in Minsk, in close cooperation with authorities, the church said.
However officials later argued that the cowshed was "unsuitable" for worship and threatened to confiscate the building.
New Life said it has received documentation from Belarussian authorities outlining details of the forced sale and confiscation of New Life Church.
Pastor Goncharenko said the Church signature section on the sale and transfer of property documents completed by the Minsk City Executive Committee had been crossed out, and that funds were allegedly transferred to hos congregation, although no agreement has been made.
Government officials have refused to comment on the latest developments. New Life members have held prayer services in an attempt to avoid confiscation by security forces of their building, said the church's lawyer, Sergei Lukanin. He said Court executors delivered an order to vacate the building by August 20.
The stand-off comes as 50 Protestant church leaders have written to autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko to end what they call "long-standing religious restrictions".
Besides threats of church closures, several pastors have been fined and detained for organizing what authorities call "unauthorized worship" in their homes, the pastors and other Christians have said.
Critics have linked the crackdown to concerns among authorities that Christian groups and dissidents undermining the country's leadership.
Belarus has been been ruled with an increasingly iron fist since 1994 by President Lukashenko, with opposition figures subjected to harsh penalties for organising protests, according to diplomats and human rights activists.
In early 2005, Belarus was listed by the United States as Europe's only remaining "outpost of tyranny". However, since late 2008, there have been signs of a slight easing of tensions with the West.
The E.U. recently launched its "Eastern Partnership", which aims to improve ties with six former Soviet republics, including Belarus, after it recently freed political prisoners. International rights groups have urged the E.U. to use its political clout to pressure Lukashenko's administration to further improve religious freedom in the country.