Media Contact: James E. Geoffrey, II
(Washington) – Helsinki Commission leaders today called upon Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenka to ensure that authorities do not ban the Christian charismatic New Life Church in the capital city of Minsk.
“I am very concerned that Belarusian officials may forcibly close this humble church,” declared Helsinki Commission Chairman, Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS). “New Life has been forced to meet in a cowshed because Minsk City authorities have banned it from meeting in a proper place of worship. This is unacceptable, and I urge Mr. Lukashenka to intervene so that these believers can be registered and freely practice their faith.”
Belarus’ flawed 2002 religion law requires all religious communities to register with the government. Those who do not, or who fail to do so successfully, are forbidden by the government from meeting. New Life Church’s registration application was denied because they listed the cowshed as their place of worship, which the government deemed inappropriate. The cowshed has been home for the congregation since September 2004, as every district administration in Minsk has reportedly denied their requests to rent alternative facilities.
“Any further moves by the government to disband New Life Church would be very troubling. It will be yet another black mark on Belarus’ already poor international reputation,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ). “This is the latest in a long and growing list of repressive measures being taken against not only religious organizations, but non-governmental organizations, independent media and political parties.”
“Respect for human rights is nonnegotiable. You do not shut down and ban congregations on specious technicalities,” said House Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD). “Belarus must do more to protect religious liberties in keeping with the commitments it has accepted as an OSCE participating State.”
On April 4, the Minsk City government issued a second warning to New Life Church for the “illegal” activity of being an unregistered church meeting in an unapproved location. The congregation had received a warning in December 2004, and the pastor has been fined on several occasions. Under the 2002 religion law, authorities may file to liquidate a religious organization with the courts after two such admonitions.
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.