Report from Olga Karatch, The House , November 14, 2022:
The regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka continues to persecute priests and believers of various faiths for their civic stance and their condemnation of violence and the war of Russia against Ukraine. The number of detentions of priests and believers is growing and now churches, temples and different places of worship are being confiscated from the believers.
Our recent monitoring report contains multiple cases of such violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief in Belarus between 2020-2022. In the monitoring report we indicate not only the cases of repressions against those who have a rank of a priest or who are ministers of religion, religious figures, but also against those who just participated in a church service or in a religious ceremony. 63 such cases have got into the report, over 100 people were affected. They include 4 women serving in churches and not less than 20 women parishioners.
The monitoring report also registers repressions against the St. Symon and Alena (the Red) Church and the Christian Social Center in Minsk, as well as repressions for one spiritual song.
Courts claimed fines in the cases stated in our monitoring report for the sum of 112,793 Belarusian rubles. At least 25 resonant cases of dismissal, removal from office and forcing of resignation are known. Also, the monitoring report registers 339 days of arrest. Currently, 97,5 years of total penalty for 12 people in the form of imprisonment have been confirmed. Five more people are waiting for trial and probably even longer terms of imprisonment. Practically all defendants in these cases, convicted to imprisonment or staying in a pre-trial detention facility, have been recognized as political prisoners.
The right to freedom of religion or belief is violated in Belarus at all levels: from access of priests to prisoners in jails to repressions against priests for praying and giving last rites for the deceased that for some reason were disliked by the regime while they were alive.
In this summary article, we list some characteristic repressions and infringements of the right to freedom of religion or belief in Belarus:
- mass-scale denial of access of priests to incarcerated people as a method of pressuring the prisoners. Priests are often not allowed to those who are in pre-trial detention and even to those already convicted and in prison. For example, the famous Belarusian oppositionist Pavel Seviarynets was able to see a priest after the trial had pronounced the sentence, but the political prisoners Viktar Siadou and Artsiom Bayarski were denied a visit of a priest by the judges hearing their cases. The political prisoner, philosopher Uladzimir Matskevich, a Calvinist in his beliefs, was denied a visit of a protestant pastor. The Catholic Mikita Yemelianau had to go on hunger strike to protest that he was not allowed to have a visit of a priest. The case was highly publicized and the Bishop Aliaksandr Yasheusky managed to visit Mikita. At least 30 cases of infringement of the rights of believers in the form of denial the opportunity to see a priest of their religious communities are known.
- The administrations of pre-trial detention facilities and prisons do not allow to send Bibles, prayer books and other religious literature to the inmates. For example, only in October 2020, the Catholic books sent to three political prisoners – Maksim Znak, Dzmitry Furmanau and Eduard Palchys – were returned to the senders. Similarly, in November 2020, the administration of the pre-trial detention centre № 1 of Minsk returned 42 out of 70 New Testaments, sent by an activist to political prisoners.
- Cases have been recorded where enforcers cut religious ornaments and crosses from the necks of detained people. Although the internal regulations of the correctional institutions allow the convicts to have with them sacred objects not made out of precious metals, Mikita Yamialianau, serving his sentence in Mogilev prison N.4 was deprived of the rosary given to him by the Assistant Bishop of Mogilev Archdiocese, Aliaksandr Yasheuski, during his pastoral visit. Besides that, political prisoners are not allowed to participate in funerals of their close relatives. Thus, Pavel Seviarynets, serving his sentence in the correctional prison N. 17 (Shklov) was not given permission to participate in the funeral of his father Kanstantsin Seviarynets, who died on 1 October 2021 from the coronavirus infection. Therefore, the hindrance of religious life of convicts in prison colonies is a very serious problem.
- Creation by the KGB of Belarus of a list of disloyal priests of different confessions. For example, on 10 June 2021, according to information provided on social media, the leadership of the Belarusian Orthodox Church submitted to the 4th Main Directorate of the KGB a list that consisted of approximately 100 “disloyal” priests.
- Confiscation of a Catholic church from the believers because of their support of the protestors. Since the beginning of October 2022, the regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka has conducted actions that are aimed at taking the St. Symon and Alena (the Red) Church from the believers. During the protests in 2020, the church was a refuge for a lot of protesters who hid there from arrests by the police operatives and possible torture and it was a place where the believers came to pray for peace and victory of the good. The Belarusian regime is taking revenge over people for following their Christian tradition and terminates the contract of use of the Red church with the community “Roman-Catholic parish of St. Symon and St. Alena”. The church leadership received a corresponding communication.
- On 30 August 2022, the decision of the regime to close the school of the Christian Social Center in Minsk became known. That educational institution is similar to an after-school recreation center or a private school or a kindergarten in the form of its work. The Christian Social Center is a religious organization accountable to the Catholic Church in Belarus. It contains a chapel, living quarters for priests, as well as a private Catholic school. However, not only children from Catholic families came to study here. The school had worked since 2018, tens of children of pre-school and school age studied there. All kinds of children were accepted there, Muslims and atheists included. It was forbidden to change one’s confession at the school.
- We want to emphasize separately, that hierarchs of the national level were also subject to pressure from all sides and often stood up to defend the basic rights of their congregation.
The right to freedom of religion or belief is extremely limited in Belarus for both the regular parishioners and for priests – and even more for political prisoners. Priests of various religious communities have become political prisoners. Unfortunately, however, currently there is very little international attention to the problem of repression for one’s views or religious beliefs in Belarus.
The regime of Lukashenka holds under total control the spiritual life of the Belarusian people as an opportunity to spread the narratives convenient for those who call themselves the “power” in the country. The Orthodox community was under severe repression still in the times of the USSR. Also, it has been well-diluted by regular and especially non-staff members of the KGB. Undoubtedly, with time, the total mass of such “servants” of the church (former and acting KGB operatives) has become very small, but it was them, who have the hierarchy and the rules that the whole structure is abiding to. Also, it is possible to say, that the Orthodox Church has become very close to the state, supporting its politics in exchange for certain privileges offered by the power-occupying former Communist party and Komsomol members, as well as KGB operatives and state bodies representatives. A lot of hierarchs of other confessions conducted a compromising policy, thinking that the repressive apparatus will not thus be activated against their religious institutions and it was a mistake. The regime is attacking priests that support their congregation with prayers and divine services in hard times. Also, it increases pressure and direct persecution of religious organizations in Belarus.
The regime considers all institutions, including the religious ones, to be its enemies, even if what they do is to keep neutral and just not support the regime directly. The Belarusian regime is also persecuting the religious groups that have a small number of followers in Belarus, thus making it easier to tightly control the religious environment in the country.
It has become a worrying tendency, that during detentions, interrogations and in custody, the believers are subject to torture and derogatory treatment, as well as to damage to their health and life. During detention, the believers and presumably believers are treated more violently and cruelly than regular detainees. A lot of arrests of priests and believers started in the summer of 2022. Today, Lukashenka is taking churches away from the believers.
There is direct evidence that the situation with regard to the right to freedom of religion or belief in Belarus is getting worse.