About a week after police evicted his congregation from its church building, the pastor of New Life Church in the capital of Belarus says his church is praying for “a great revival” in the eastern European country where violations of religious freedom have increased since last year’s presidential election.
“We would have expected this kind of situations in the Soviet Union times, when churches were persecuted,” Senior Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko told Evangelical Focus in an interview. “It might be the first case in the history of modern Belarus that we face this kind of injustice, a situation in which they entered forcefully in a church and evicted us.”
His church in Minsk was evicted and shut down on Feb. 17 by police officers and other authorities who claimed that the church was an “unpurposeful use” of the building. About 30 bailiffs, police and Housing Repairs and Utilities Association officials arrived. The bailiffs used an angle grinder to cut the door lock to gain entry, according to Forum 18.
Authorities had made earlier attempts to close the church down, but the members each time managed to defend the building by standing in a chain.
“This time it was different,” the pastor said. “They threatened us with arrest and fines and we were powerless to defend ourselves. So, when they entered and cut the entrance with a circular saw, we were shocked. I was staying there and thought, ‘Is this truly happening?’”
During the eviction, about 60 to 70 church members were praying inside the building. The officers then turned off the sound system, went on the stage and ordered everyone to exit the building, Goncharenko said.
“As our church members were exiting, I saw some crying,” he recalled. He said that he stood outside the building at the time because the officers did not allow him to enter.
“It was a very sad situation. We were witnessing how we were losing the building we have used for 19 years,” he added.
The building stands on an old cowshed that the church purchased about two decades ago. The pastor claims that authorities neither allowed church leaders to register the building as a place of worship nor did they provide an alternative place where they could gather.
“All our efforts in this time to make this building registered for religious purpose were rejected,” he was quoted as saying. “By not giving us the permission, they were punishing us.”
The pastor remembers that when the church used a cultural space in the city to hold services before acquiring the building, they were thrown out.
Since last August, Belarus has been witnessing protests against the regime of President Alyaksandr Ryhoravich Lukashenko, who describes himself as an “Orthodox atheist” and was re-elected for his sixth term on Aug. 9 amid allegations of widespread electoral fraud.
Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State under President Donald Trump, also warned that the election was “not free and fair.” Violations of religious freedom and other freedoms and targeting of human rights defenders have increased since then, according to Forum 18, a Norwegian human rights organization.
The organization reports that the regime had used Administrative Code Article 23.34 to crack down on those taking part in public prayer events.
“For example, Catholics organising and participating in prayer events in the street in Minsk, Grodno, Lida, and other towns have been and continue to be accused and fined under Article 23.34,” Forum 18 reported last October. “As the Human Rights Centre Viasna (Spring) has documented, the same charges are also brought against people organising and participating in peaceful political protests against the regime. Many Protestants participate in such protests.”
Evangelical Focus previously reported that New Life Church suspects that the final eviction happened after members recorded a video calling for democracy and denouncing the Lukashenko regime's actions against protesters last year. The outlet also noted that three Protestant entities signed a joint statement on Feb. 18 expressing solidarity with the church.
Pastor Goncharenko said that he and his church members feel they are “standing in this moment right before a revival.”
“We are praying for this nation, that we have a great revival," he told Evangelical Focus.
“We see that our nation does no longer want to deal with this evidence of evil, lies,” the pastor added. “We as a population are ready to resist this. People want to separate themselves from this evil and have a desire to become pure. And this is not only that people want to get rid of the government, but many, including non-Christians, are striving for kindness and fairness.”
The pastor requested Christians everywhere to “pray for our country.”
“May God bless these beginnings. Pray that hearts of people turn to God, and find their only hope in Him, and have a supernatural encounter with Him," he said.