The government harassed members of minority religious groups, denied them permits to obtain places of worship, raided their private residences and, in one case, arrested a religious official. Members of religious groups reportedly continued to be reluctant to report abuses and restrictions, fearing intimidation and retribution.
On September 12, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Belarus announced that according to an official notification from authorities, the Committee for State Security (KGB) arrested Catholic priest Uladzislau Lazar May 31. He was arrested on the charges of high treason and complicity in a crime, in particular for allegedly “handing money and material valuables” to a person accused of spying for a foreign state. Prior to the official notification, authorities held Lazar for three months and failed to inform either the Catholic Church or Lazar’s family about his whereabouts or the status of the criminal case. Although a defense lawyer reportedly had regular access to Lazar, the lawyer could not release any details about the case due to a non-disclosure agreement authorities forced him to sign. The papal nuncio saw Lazar in jail October 25, the only person to do so aside from Lazar’s lawyer. A prison official was present throughout the meeting and monitored the conversation. The KGB spokesperson announced December 4 that Lazar was released from KGB custody “on his own recognizance,” reportedly a form of house arrest that includes a travel restriction among other limitations. After Lazar’s release, the Roman Catholic Church posted him to the town of Vileika to serve at a local church.
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 or allow them to gather for services in private homes.
The procedure for registering at residential premises remained cumbersome and arbitrary in practice. The government continued to charge religious group leaders with violating the legal prohibition on organizing or hosting unauthorized meetings, especially in private homes. Authorities fined or issued written warnings to Protestant and non-BOC Orthodox congregations for operating illegally.
On February 24, 20 police officers raided a service held by a Baptist community of the unregistered Baptist Council of Churches at a private residence in Homyel. They reportedly questioned all community members, including children, without the consent of their parents. On April 10, authorities fined Pastor Mikalai Varushyn four million rubles ($421) on charges of violating regulations for holding demonstrations or other mass public events. On April 26, a higher court turned down his appeal to challenge the fine.
On April 14, a dozen police officers broke into another private home in Homyel where Pastor Pyotr Yashchanka, a representative of another unregistered Baptist community, was holding a service. Police interrupted the worship, recorded the meeting on tape and interrogated those present, including writing down their passport information and home addresses. The police also confiscated religious literature. According to the human rights group Forum18, the security services launched the raid to “reveal criminal groups of the unregistered Baptists.” On May 31, a Homyel district court fined Yashchanka and his associate Valyantsin Shchadronak 200,000 rubles ($21) each. The two were found guilty of organizing unsanctioned mass public events. On the same day, local authorities summoned home owner Andrei Tupalski and warned him that he could be held criminally liable for hosting religious services in the future.
On December 22, 10 police officers entered a private home and interrupted a pre-Christmas service of the local Evangelical Christian Baptist community in Homyel. Police confiscated a Bible, wrote down names of all members of the church, and selectively interrogated a number of them. Three community leaders were charged with organizing an unsanctioned service; however, no indictments followed at year’s end.
Police stopped and searched at least seven Jehovah’s Witnesses for preaching in public venues in the towns of Kletsk, Rahachou, Voranava, and Byalynichy during the year.
The authorities continued a freeze on the assets of the charismatic New Life Church (NLC) and attempted to evict the Church from its premises, a repeat of a similar incident last year. On June 13, the Supreme Court ordered the NLC to vacate its premises within seven days. The next day, however, the Court suspended the eviction order at the request of the local housing authorities. The NLC continued to use the space for religious purposes but was still unable to obtain proof of ownership from authorities. The NLC’s renewed efforts to challenge an asset freeze imposed in 2010 over alleged environmental contamination were unsuccessful. Minsk city authorities continuously refused to meet with the NLC senior pastor, Vyachaslau Hancharenka.
Authorities at times delayed granting clergy permission to visit to members of the democratic opposition and human rights and civil society groups who had been incarcerated for political reasons. When such visits were granted, prison authorities closely monitored meetings, private conversations, and religious confessions.
Government “ideology officers” charged with promoting official policies and views continued to target and harass unregistered religious groups, including by monitoring the activities of members in their workplaces.
Authorities reportedly 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. They brought criminal charges against Catholic layman Alyaksei Shchadrou in the Hrodna region for allegedly establishing and leading an unregistered religious organization that united local residents of the same religious beliefs as well as homeless persons. He was also charged with setting up facilities for religious services and other religious activities. Local television channels claimed that Shchadrou was running a sect while providing a shelter for the homeless. Shchadrou denied all the charges, saying that he only provided beds to homeless persons who were neglected by authorities and prayed with them. On September 11, police dropped the charges against Shchadrou after authorities registered his private charitable organization.
The government continued to monitor minority religious groups, especially those it labeled “foreign” or “cults.” According to credible sources, state security officers 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. Groups also encountered obstacles to regaining ownership of religious properties confiscated during the Soviet period.
Some local government officials canceled 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.
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 denied the seventh registration application by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Barysau and their fifth registration application in Lida because the groups met in private residences or could not otherwise prove their residence at the designated premises. While authorities in Vitsyebsk and Svetlahorsk allowed local Jehovah’s Witnesses communities to use private homes for religious purposes on April 1 and September 13, respectively, authorities in Mahilyou, Babruisk, Rahachou, Homyel, and Lida refused to grant such permission.
Authorities allowed Jehovah’s Witnesses to hold a three-day convention in Minsk in August. Over 10,000 members from across the country reportedly attended the convention without official interference.
Authorities regulated every aspect of proselytizing and distribution of religious literature. Religious groups, especially Protestants, remained cautious in proselytizing and distributing material due to the general atmosphere of intimidation and fear of retribution, refusals, and other possible limitations. Regional and municipal authorities in a few cities also issued warning letters to Jehovah’s Witnesses due to their religious activity and discussions about the Bible.
In February the Svetlahorski District Court dismissed the case against Dzmity Liabedzka, who was charged in 2011 for conducting a meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses without permission. In March the court also ruled to repay Liabedzka the fine of 700,000 rubles ($74) and administrative fees of 470,000 rubles ($49).
The inconsistent application of government visa regulations affected the ability of missionaries to live and work in the country. This reduced the number of Catholic clergy permitted in the country and limited the humanitarian and charitable projects of foreign Protestant groups. For example, authorities shortened the visa validity for a few Catholic priests from the regular one-year duration to a six- or three-month duration, or refused to extend their six-month visas for work in the country. Authorities stated the action was based on complaints from Catholics about foreign priests’ poor knowledge of the Russian or Belarusian languages. Credible sources noted, however, that in the western region of the country small Catholic communities often were fluent in Polish.
On October 7, Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz and parishioners of the Saint Mary community consecrated the site that was designated by the Minsk city authorities for building a new Catholic church. This was the sixth site allocated by Minsk local authorities to the Catholic Church.
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. Some Protestant communities complained of such by the authorities, calling them harassment.
Authorities only sporadically or ineffectively investigated anti-Semitic acts. They typically characterized neo-Nazi activity as hooliganism. On June 20, a court in Rechytsa fined an unnamed 21-year-old blogger one million rubles ($105) for posting pictures of Nazi symbols and paraphernalia on his social network page from September 2010 through May 2013. Prosecutors warned the blogger that he could be held criminally liable for further similar postings.
In February a court in Mazyr found a 22-year-old man guilty of vandalizing two local Orthodox churches in 2012 and sentenced him to compulsory treatment at a mental hospital.
The government continued to require students to use textbooks that some claimed promoted intolerance toward nontraditional religious groups. Leaders of Protestant communities criticized the language in one textbook as discriminatory, citing language in one chapter that labeled 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 Krishna as “sects.” The government made no changes to these textbooks despite requests from Protestant groups.