by Stefan J. Bos, Worthy News Europe Bureau Chief
MINSK/BUDAPEST (Worthy News) -- Members of one of Belarus' largest evangelical churches continued a five-day "fasting and prayer" action, Friday, January 30, amid attempts by authorities to seize their place of worship as part of an alleged crackdown on non-Orthodox groups.
The Minsk-based New Life Church said the fasting began January 28 after the capital's Supreme Economic Court threw out a church appeal against state plans to take over the building.
Officials say the building is a former cowshed and not used "for its legal purpose", but they have declined church attempts to have its usage changed. Church members are concerned Minsk authorities, backed by the recent court decision, will try to demand the building "at any moment."
"The authorities threaten to transfer $17,000 to New Life's account this week. If it happens, in 10 days after that we will be forced to leave the building," the church said in a statement seen by Worthy News.
"As we consider all the acts of the government in regards to our building unlawful, we are not going to agree with that and volunteer to give it back. The authorities may try to take it back by force. Our only hope in this situation is on the Lord."
New Life's Senior Pastor Slava Goncharenko said the coming days "Every morning and every evening believers will gather" for joint prayer. Speaking at the opening of the five-day action, he told believers not to give up hope.
"The church is possessing the power of God as before, about which the Gospel of Mathew says: '…I (Jesus) will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven'," he added.
U.S. officials and Christians have linked the actions by authorities to concern over the growing non-Orhodox groups, including New Life Church, which claims to have 1,000 adult members and 300 children and 10 "branch churches" across the country. It also has 30 "various ministries" including among orphans and in prisons, the church said.
Since 1990, the number of Protestant congregations has more than doubled, with 966 registered groups, make them the second church movement after the official Orthodox Church, followed by the Roman Catholic Church, and the smaller Muslim and Jewish groups, according to church estimates.
"In Belarus, there are more than 100,000 Evangelical Christians," said the New Life Church, which grew out of an underground Pentecostal church. The action against New Life came after elsewhere in Belarus, Baptist church leader Aleksandr Yermalitsky was reportedly fined on January 8 for hosting "a religious event at which the Bible was read" at his home.
Other Baptists running street libraries have reportedly had literature confiscated and received court warnings for "singing songs of a Christian nature without permission." In addition, The Ministry of Education has issued a textbook "Man, Society, and State," which labels Protestants as "sects".
Catholics have also complained that foreigners have been banned from involvement in their church, including seven Polish priests and nuns who were the latest clergy reportedly barred by authorities to continue their activities in this former Soviet republic.
Earlier, other foreign missionaries, clergy, and humanitarian workers affiliated with churches have faced government-imposed obstacles, including deportation and visa refusal or cancellation, U.S. officials and local Christians said. Among them was
The United States State Department said it wasn't surprised about these developments. “The Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, [is] the only officially recognized Orthodox denomination. Although there is no state religion, the concordat grants the BOC privileged status."
It added that, "Protestants in particular have attracted negative attention." Also, "Numerous anti-Semitic acts and attacks on religious monuments, buildings, and cemeteries have occurred with little discernable response from the government," the U.S. State Department said in a recent report.
Controlling religious groups has been seen as part of the autocratic style of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been described by critics as "Europe's last dictator." He was declared to have won a third term as president at elections in March 2006 following a vote which Western observers described as "fundamentally flawed."
Election monitors claimed widespread harassment of opposition supporters and overwhelming media bias. Official results showed Lukashenko had won the ballot with over 80 percent of the vote.