Heavy penalties repeatedly imposed on churches in Belarus for organizing worships has threatened evangelistic works in the post-Soviet country.
According to the religious freedom watchdog, Forum 18, the charismatic New Life Church in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, has been fined three times since December 2004. The latest incident was on Oct. 7 when the local court accused the administrator of the Church, Vasily Yurevich, of leading unauthorized worship service on Sept. 4.
Forum 18, which monitors religious persecution in Communist and former Soviet states, reported that the latest fine was 3,825,000 Belarusian roubles (1,780 U.S. Dollars) equivalent to over ten times the average monthly wage in Belarus.
Yurevich, denies the court charges, arguing that he was on leave and had not entered the church building on Sept. 4, according to Forum 18. The church administrator has already ignored two similar massive fines given by the Minsk City Court on Dec. 28, 2004 and Sept. 23, 2005. Currently, he is planning to appeal against the latest fine, Forum 18 reported.
Belarus was one of several countries noted for severe violations of religious freedom in the annual report by the U.S. Department of State. On November 2002, President Lukashenko formally signed a new religious law into effect despite protests from international and domestic human rights organizations, the European Union and domestic religious groups.
Even though the constitution of Belarus guarantees that "all religions and faiths shall be equal before the law," the new law stipulated that all unregistered religious activity, communities with fewer than 20 members and any religious activity in private homes (apart from occasional, small-scale meetings) are considered illegal, the U.S. Department of State report stated.
Furthermore, the government required all previously registered groups to re-register by November 2004. However, the report revealed that many religious groups, including the mainstream churches and those with thousands of members, have failed to complete the complex registration process leading to their illegal status.
According to Mission Network News (MNN), Glenn Penner of Voice of the Martyrs Canada confirmed that their partner New Life Church in Minsk faces continued harassment and fines in their quest to have a place to worship.
"A couple years ago, they bought a cowshed. They got permission from the city to go ahead and convert it to a church, but in the meantime, authorities have since rescinded that permission, and have fined the church administrator three different times and have threatened to close down the church," Penner said.
Despite the fact that Belarusian pastors have insisted on meeting for worship and teaching under persecution, Penner is not optimistic about a change in the situation.
"I don't think you're going to see a situation where Belarusian pastors are going to get arrested, but you're going to see these incredibly heavy fines which are going to put tremendous burdens on the churches," Penner says.
While the case of New Life Church in Minsk appeared to be the most serious one, the Evangelical Belarus Information Center reported that a number of other Protestant churches have also been repeatedly rejected from registration or have received milder punishments, according to Forum 18. Examples include that Baptist Council of Churches, Calvinist Reformed Church and Full Gospel Church.
The evangelistic activities of foreign mission agencies in Belarus are also overshadowed by the recent reports of increased government-sponsored harassments on churches.
Global Aid Network (GAiN-USA), which has been spreading the Gospel and delivering aid to the vulnerable in Belarus for the last 15 years, warned of the crisis in evangelism faced by Belarusian Christians and foreign mission groups.
"It is beginning to be a little bit harder to go into certain areas. Some public schools we were able to go in before with open arms are not so welcoming anymore. Our staff on the ground there are really starting to see a difficult time to get into some locations," GAiN-USAs Tim Burns told MNN.
The religious laws in Belarus prohibit foreign missionaries from carrying out religious activities outside of the institutions that invited them. All religious groups must also receive prior governmental approval to invite foreign missionaries.
Even though GAiN-USA has been enjoying many connections with local Belarusian churches and pastors, their diminishing religious rights may jeopardize foreign missionaries freedom to proclaim the Gospel in Belarus.
"Those doors are starting to close somewhat and we don't quite have the freedom that we used to have to proclaim the Gospel," Burns continued.
Acknowledging that the remaining time for evangelism in Belarus can be short, GAiN-USA is preparing the project "Hope for Belarus" for Mar. 31-Apr. 9, 2006.