(Washington) - United States Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) is "shocked, but not surprised" that Alexander Lukashenka's government demolished a newly constructed church building on August 1st while parishioners were preparing for its solemn consecration.
Belarusian agents, camouflaged and armed with automatic weapons, reportedly surrounded the western village of Pahranichny. They cleared the way for a bus-load of demolition crews, cranes and bulldozers in an orchestrated effort to destroy the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church building, just hours before its parishioners planned to dedicate the new building.
"This outrageous crime further demonstrates how ruthless, corrupt and immoral Lukashenka's rule has become," Smith said. "Is nothing sacred in Belarus today, that the regime has to stoop so low as to level a parish church? Since Lukashenka has led Belarus to become a pariah state in the heart of Europe, nothing he does surprises me any more," Smith observed.
Government authorities have consistently refused state registration for the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, describing the church, with about 70 parishes throughout Belarus, as a "non-existent religious group."
The Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church is separate from the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate. Lukashenka has pursued a policy of favoring the Russian Orthodox Church, while harassing other religious groups, including Catholics, Protestants and Hindus. Tensions in Pahranichny between the Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox parish and the Belarusian Authocephalous Orthodox parish have also been high.
"I condemn Mr. Lukashenka and the Belarusian Government for the wanton destruction of this house of worship. Regardless of ecclesiastical differences between the two village parishes, government intervention is uncalled for and demolishing a church building is unacceptable," Mr. Smith declared. "This further demonstrates the true nature of the Lukashenka regime and strengthens my resolve to pass the Belarus Democracy Act."
The Belarus Democracy Act of 2002, H.R. 5056, would promote democratic development, human rights, and rule of law in Belarus. The bipartisan measure authorizes an increase in assistance for democracy-building activities, encourages free and fair parliamentary elections, and would impose sanctions against the Lukashenka regime, including denying his high-ranking officials entry into the United States.
Authorities on Tuesday, July 23rd ordered the building destroyed, citing its "illegal" construction. According to news reports, plans filed by the church did not include designs for a basement. Demolition workers on July 26 tried to wreck the building with bulldozers.
They encountered parishioners and other church supporters surrounding the building, some chained to its pillars, preventing authorities from destroying the church. No injuries were reported, but journalist and human rights activist Valery Shchukin was jailed for 15 days for attempting to write about the attack for the Narodna Volya newspaper. Six other individuals were fined.
The bulldozing is the most recent occurrence illustrating a deterioration of religious freedom and human rights in Belarus. Earlier this year, the Belarusian parliament considered a highly restrictive law on religion, deciding to postpone a vote until the autumn session. The government has furthermore escalated its harassment of non-Russian Orthodox religious communities.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.