police raided a Pentecost service of a Pentecostal Church in the capital Minsk, local Christians and rights investigators said.
The John the Baptist Pentecostal Church was reportedly raided Sunday, May 27, by ten state officials, two in police uniforms and eight in plain clothes, as part of an apparent fresh government crackdown on what authorities call "unsanctioned" Christian meetings.
Forum 18, which investigates reported cases of Christian persecution in especially ex-Communist nations, said the church’s Pastor, Antoni Bokun, was detained and held for at least one night at a police station before being fined 20 times the official minimum monthly wage, about 620,000 Belarusian roubles ($290).
Bokun reportedly told a May 28 court hearing, attended by 100 supporters, that his church was
forced to hold an "unsanctioned mass meeting" as it was refused permission to rent premises for public worship, despite having obtained the required "state registration."
Fellow church member Jaroslaw Lukasik, a Polish citizen married to a Belarusian, faces a fine of up to 20 times the minimum wage or immediate deportation.
Although Lukasik did not preach at the service, he was said to have been charged with "conducting unauthorized religious activity as a foreign citizen" and violating laws "on the presence of foreign citizens in Belarus."
Lukasik, who was visited by two Polish diplomats over the weekend, was due to go before an administrative commission Wednesday, May 30. Trial observers said that whatever the outcome, he may still be forced to leave the country early next month.
The authorities in Belarus maintain tight controls on religious activity of foreign citizens. Polish Catholic priest narrowly escaped prosecution after he celebrated Mass without state permission while passing through Minsk last September, Forum 18 reported.
In addition missionaries and other Christian and religious workers invited by local communities
of various confessions are increasingly being barred from entering Belarus. It was the first time John the Baptist Pentecostal Church was raided following apparently previous threats. In late 2006 a local policeman and a state representative in plain clothes inspected the empty premises – the basement of a free-standing house near the edge of Minsk – but there were no repercussions until now, observers said.
Bishop Tsvor of the Pentecostal Union for Minsk and Minsk Region was similarly threatened with charges for unsanctioned worship in March 2006, but eventually spared punishment following the expiry of the legal deadline for his prosecution, Forum 18 said.
The case is closely followed by other church groups struggling to find locations to worship without police interference. Some congregations, including the charismatic Living Word Church in the town of Grodno reportedly found that "our brother Catholics in this town are letting us meet in their church."
Under the Religion Law, registered religious organizations may rent secular premises, but only
with a contract and the approval of the relevant local state authority. The crackdown on especially active Protestant Christians is seen by observers and dissidents as part of a wider strategy by the internationally isolated President Alexander Lukashenko to extend his power base.
He has ruled the country with an increasingly iron fist since 1994, Western diplomats say. In early 2005, Belarus was listed by the United States as Europe’s last "remaining outpost of tyranny." Besides Christians, political opponents have been jailed. In one of the latest cases on Monday, May 28, four youth pro-democracy activists, including a 16-year-old, went on trial on charges of participating in an unregistered opposition group. If convicted they face up to two years in prison.
One of the defendants, 16-year-old high-school student Nasta Polozhanko, said she believed she was being used as a pawn by Lukashenko in his geopolitical maneuvering. "I feel like a political hostage," she said. "First Lukashenko takes a hostage, then he starts to bargain with the EU and the U.S. on the conditions for release."
Hundreds of representatives of EU and US embassies gathered outside the courthouse in Minsk in support of the defendants.
The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and top members of his government and some analysts have suggested he has shown some signs of seeking to improve relations with the West amid strains in ties with Russia over energy policies. (With BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos and reports from the region).
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