By BosNewsLife News Center with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
MINSK/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)-- Christians say a pastor in southeast Belarus may face criminal charges after police raided his church venue during a Sunday worship service as part of a wider government crackdown on devoted believers in the autocratically-ruled former Soviet nation.
A court already fined Pastor Sergei Nikolaenko in June for leading what what officials viewed as an "unapproved religious meeting" in Gomel city, BosNewsLife learned.
Troubles began for Pastor Nikolaenko and his congregation Sunday, May 31, when local police -- accompanied by the riot squad -- raided his Reformed Orthodox Transfiguration Church he was pastoring, activists said.
Some 20 church members had reportedly gathered for worship in a rented venue within the city's Central District.
Following the raid, local authorities banned further meetings from taking place, despite the church having been previously granted government registration, reported advocacy group Forum 18.
Police also searched Pastor Nikolaenko's home for "sectarian" literature, as well as the home of another participating church member, Christians said.
This was no isolated incident. An active member of a Council of Churches congregation in the nearby district of Svetlogorsk was reportedly
fined in June for refusing to identify a fellow Christian who was reading the Bible when armed police raided the church during a Sunday worship service.
Other believers in the country of Belarus are facing similar forms of prosecution, including the owner of a home where members had gathered to worship, said Voice Of the Martyrs Canada (VOMC), which closely monitors the situation.
VOMC said it had urged its supporters to "uphold in prayer Pastor Nikolaenko, and others in Belarus who are facing much opposition for their faith" so "that they would sense God's peace and assurance throughout these trials."
It was also important to, "Pray that the publicized facts of each case will be used to raise awareness of their plight, thus garnering much needed prayer support from fellow Christians around the globe," VOMC added in a statement to BosNewsLife.
"As a result, may these persecuted believers be further strengthened in their walk with the Lord and even more determined to live wholeheartedly for Him."
VOMC also urged supporters to "intercede for the citizens of Belarus who are in need of salvation -- including those in governmental authority -- asking that they be given an opportunity to hear the Gospel and come to faith in our Risen Saviour", Jesus Christ.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who is running for re-election in October, has been described by the West as Europe's last dictator.
Under his rule authorities have been cracking down on dissent and other groups deemed dangerous for his power base, including Christian
groups operating outside official churches with links to the government.
Authorities have denied wrongdoing. They say they only apply the law, though critics have described it as repressive religious legislation.
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