There were reports of abuses of religious freedom, including reports of detention, and the government imposed numerous restrictions that affected members of minority religious groups. Members of religious groups reportedly continued to be reluctant to report abuses and restrictions, fearing intimidation and retribution.
On February 8, approximately a dozen riot police entered the home of Antoni Bokun, pastor of the St. John the Baptist evangelical community in Minsk, and dispersed a group of approximately 50 people gathered for dinner and Bible study. The police did not produce a search warrant. They detained 33 adults for three hours for an alleged ID check, subsequently releasing all without charge. Police asserted that they acted on the basis of an anonymous phone call claiming the residence housed drug production facilities. Members of the religious community reported that neighbors had reported a “gathering of a sect” to authorities.
Some Christian groups stated that registration requirements severely restricted their activities, suppressed freedom of religion, and legalized criminal prosecution of individuals for their religious beliefs. A number of local authorities continued to refuse to negotiate registration agreements with Jehovah’s Witnesses groups.
The government continued to charge religious group leaders with violating the legal prohibition on organizing or hosting unauthorized meetings, especially in private homes. Authorities frequently fined or issued written warnings to Protestant and non-BOC Orthodox congregations for operating illegally.
On April 1, police in Rahachou disrupted a religious meeting held in the private home of Nina Volchkova, a local Jehovah’s Witnesses community leader, where 37 people were present. Police searched those present and confiscated their religious literature. While Volchkova was facing charges of improper use of residential premises, the community applied for permission from the authorities for non-residential premises to hold religious meetings. Owners of several vacant premises reportedly refused to rent to the community under pressure from the local authorities. Ultimately, authorities issued temporary permits to hold religious meetings in Volchkova’s home from August 1 to December 31. Although the Rahachou Jehovah’s Witness community is legally registered, local authorities have denied its requests to obtain land to construct worship facilities or to rent such facilities in the city. In February authorities in Svetlahorsk again refused a request from the local Jehovah’s Witnesses to build or rent space for religious meetings, citing the lack of “premises available within the district’s municipal property.”
The authorities continued a freeze on the assets of the Charismatic New Life Church (NLC) and attempted to evict it from its premises. In late November the Supreme Court ordered the NLC to vacate its premises by December 5. The group held around-the-clock vigils and continued to use the space for religious purposes. Local housing authorities dropped their claims on December 4 and terminated court proceedings, but the group was still unable to obtain proof of ownership. The asset freeze resulted from a court-ordered fine and damage costs imposed in 2010 over alleged environmental contamination. The NLC’s renewed efforts to challenge the judgment were unsuccessful.
Authorities at times denied clergy visits to members of the democratic opposition and human rights and civil society groups who were incarcerated for political reasons. When such visits were granted, prison authorities closely monitored meetings and private conversations, and in one case attempted to use the monitored conversation to force a prisoner to end a hunger strike.
Government “ideology officers” charged with promoting the official state ideology continued to target and harass unregistered religious groups, including by monitoring the activities of members in their workplaces.
Authorities reportedly often warned unregistered religious groups that they could face criminal liability and their leaders could be imprisoned for up to two years for acting on behalf of unregistered groups. On June 1, a deputy prosecutor of the Mazyr district delivered a warning to Zoya Suzko, a member of the local Jesus Christ Full Evangelical Christian Church, stating that she could face criminal charges for acting on behalf of an unregistered group. In addition, the warning stated that Suzko could face criminal charges for intentionally inciting racial, national, or religious hatred. Suzko unsuccessfully appealed the warning, arguing that the religious group had already discussed registration procedures and organizational matters including a charter, and had elected leaders. At year’s end, Suzko had not been formally charged with any offenses.
The government continued to monitor minority religious groups, especially those it labeled “foreign” or “cults.” State security officers reportedly often attended Protestant services to conduct surveillance, which group members described as intimidation and harassment.
Many religious groups continued to experience problems renting, purchasing, or registering properties to establish places of worship. Converting residential property to religious use was also difficult. They also encountered obstacles to regaining ownership of religious properties confiscated during the Soviet period.
Some local government officials cancelled or refused to extend leases at properties where religious groups conducted services, citing a decree to maintain public order and safety during public gatherings. Renting a public facility to hold religious services, particularly for unregistered groups, also remained difficult. Protestant groups were most severely affected, because they were less likely to own property and their private homes were too small to accommodate their numbers. In January at least three Protestant groups in Minsk were notified on short notice that their leases were terminated after authorities pressured the owners.
The government denied permission to several unregistered Protestant and nontraditional groups to convert their properties to religious use, on the grounds that the groups were not registered. The groups were unable to register due to the lack of a legal address. Local authorities in Barysau, Vileyka, Zhabinka, Lida, Mikashevichy, Maladzechna, Pinsk, and Slonim denied registration to Jehovah’s Witnesses because the groups met in private residences. In all cases authorities refused either to designate land plots for new construction, to assist with searching for premises for purchase or rent, or to register groups operating in residential properties. In January authorities in Hrodna asked a Jehovah’s Witnesses group in the town of Lida seeking to rent a building to prove it had a legal address in order to register. After the group submitted the required document, the building’s owner, under pressure from local authorities, refused to rent it. The authorities denied registration to the group, as they had done in previous years.
The government did not return buildings, including religious buildings, seized during the Soviet and Nazi periods if the buildings were in use for sports or cultural activities or if the government had nowhere to move the occupants.
Authorities regulated every aspect of proselytizing and distribution of religious literature. On July 11, the OPRRNA prohibited the Jehovah’s Witnesses from importing and distributing copies of the May 1 issue of The Watchtower magazine, citing political content. Following a request to the OPRRNA’s “Expert Council” for the reason behind the rejection, an OPRRNA official stated in late December that the issue contained unacceptable political content and there was no basis for challenging the decision.
The inconsistent application of government visa regulations affected the ability of missionaries to live and work in the country. The authorities deported and refused or revoked visas for a number of foreign missionaries, clergy, and charity workers. This reduced the number of Catholic clergy permitted in the country and limited the humanitarian and charitable projects of foreign-origin Protestant groups. For example, in January and February authorities shortened the visa validity for at least 18 Polish Catholic priests from the regular one year to six or three months. The OPRRNA stated the action was based on complaints from Catholics about foreign priests’ lack of knowledge of the Russian or Belarusian languages. However, credible sources noted that in the western region of the country small Catholic communities often were fluent in Polish. The head of the Roman Catholic Church in the country expressed concern about additional government pressure.
Authorities frequently questioned foreign missionaries and humanitarian workers, as well as the local citizens who worked with them, about the sources and uses of their funding. Security personnel reportedly monitored religious services led or attended by foreign workers.
Authorities only sporadically or ineffectively investigated anti-Semitic acts. They typically characterized neo-Nazi activity as hooliganism.
The government arbitrarily applied a variety of laws and regulations against religious leaders. In July authorities fined Archpriest Ihar Prylepski, a leader of the Orthodox community of St. Apostles Peter and Paul in a village near the town of Vyaleika, 700,000 rubles ($230) for refusing to be fingerprinted and disobeying police orders.
The government continued to require students to use textbooks that promoted religious intolerance toward nontraditional religious groups. Leaders of Protestant communities criticized the language in one textbook as discriminatory. One chapter included language labeling groups such as Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of Maria, the White Brotherhood, and Jehovah’s Witnesses with the derogatory term “sects.” Another textbook also labeled certain Protestant denominations and Hare Krishnas as “sects.” The government made no changes to these textbooks despite requests from Protestant groups.