Belarusian Christians Continue Hunger Strike for Religious Liberty

Some 180 Protestant Christians in Belarus have joined in a hunger strike to protest against the government’s repression of their faith and the country’s lack of religious freedom.

Believers throughout Belarus are gathering to support members of the 1,000-membered New Life Church in Minsk which has battled with authorities for its right to worship, according to the World Evangelical Alliance - Religious Liberty Commission (WEA- RLC). The government has reportedly denied the group registration and obstructed its efforts to rent a meeting place.

“We are keeping cheerful,” said Uladzimir Matskevich, the head of the organizational committee of the Belarusian Christian Democratic party, to Radio Svaboda, according to the Belarus human rights group Charter 97.

“People understand more and more that the situation is complicated, that some urgent actions are possible, and we are getting ready for them,” he continued. “We are also getting ready for the situation to last for many months, and we know what to do in this situation as well. People are taking part in the protest more and more consciously.”

Matskevich has been on a hunger strike since Oct. 6, the first day of the protest.

Belarus, which is a republic by name but in fact a dictatorship, abides to a law that makes it nearly impossible for Protestant fellowships to obtain registration. One of the requirements is that the group must have at least 10 separate registered groups, of which one must have existed in 1982 – at the height of Soviet repression. If a denomination is not registered then it cannot train clergy, invite foreigners to work as staff, or run schools or media.

The church was in a long dispute over the church property involving the technical definition of the building which led to the subsequent forced sales of the property at a significantly lower price in July.

New Life Church has refused to sign the act of giving over the property to authorities which means it is still the legal owner of the land. However, New Life was ordered to vacate the premise before Oct. 8.

"They are treating us worse than in Communist times,” New Life pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko told The Associated Press on Oct. 10. “We are ready for the worst - a forcible occupation of the building."

Beginning on Oct. 6, 17 New Life members moved into the New Life property and began a “fast-strike” (hunger strike) to protest the government’s action against the church, according to WEA-RLC.

Upon hearing the plight of New Life Church, believers across Belarus have given support with many traveling to Minsk and often staying overnight in the property with the hunger strikers.

On Oct. 9, 500 believers attended a prayer service for New Life Church and on Oct.13 there were 214 New Life believers participating in the hunger strike.

As the hunger strike enters its 11th day on Oct. 17, the situation is becoming more serious with some senior citizens among the strikers giving up both food and water, according to Charter 97.