BELARUS: Massive fine for "illegal" Baptisms

Minsk, Belarus - The pastor of one of the largest Pentecostal churches in Belarus has been fined the equivalent of over 150 times the minimum wage for performing baptisms in a local lake, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "We didn't manage to appeal against the court's decision in time and now we're deciding what to do next," a member of Salvation Pentecostal Church wishing to remain anonymous recently told Forum 18. "If we are fined again within a year, the authorities will have grounds to close the church down."

To Forum 18's knowledge this is the first time that a member congregation of a mainstream Protestant Union has been faced with such a huge fine for unsanctioned religious activity. Similarly heavy fines have been imposed on New Life, the Minsk-based charismatic church. New Life is also facing the building it uses for worship being taken from it by the authorities. Also heavily fined has been a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in Brest region.

Pastor Sergei Poznyakovich baptised some 70 people in a local lake on 2 July, a congregation member told Forum 18 from the small town of Baranovichi (Brest region) in south-west Belarus, where Salvation Pentecostal Church is located. The Pentecostal – whose son was among the baptised - was not aware of any state representatives observing the event, but recalled that police officers subsequently visited the church on Sunday 16 July.

As a result of the baptisms, Judge Oksana Kusheva of Baranovichi Municipal Court on 30 August fined Pastor Poznyakovich 4,650,000 Belarusian Roubles (14,225 Norwegian Kroner, 1,696 Euros or 2,171 US Dollars), the congregation member confirmed to Forum 18. Also, the Pentecostal Union's bishop for Brest region, Nikolai Kurkayev, was fined 640,000 Belarusian Roubles (1,952 Norwegian Kroner, 235 Euros or 298 US Dollars).

Founded in the 1920s, Salvation Pentecostal Church has some 1,500 adult members. The church holds state registration and worships at its prayer house, an imposing building constructed in the early 1990s.

The baptisms should not have taken place in the lake, "due to a higher than permitted level of bacterial pollution in the water," Baranovichi's state official dealing with religious affairs claimed to Forum 18 on 27 September. Ruslan Krutko also claimed that this had been repeatedly explained to Salvation Pentecostal Church prior to the baptisms and alternative sites offered, "but they particularly wanted the lake right next to the church." While confirming that the authorities had failed to respond formally to the Pentecostals' request for the outdoor event with either permission or a ban, Krutko pointed out that the law regulating mass public events insists that official permission is obtained in advance: "The state authorities would be responsible if something happened to people, so we have certain rules."

Pastor Poznyakovich's fine – equivalent to 150 times the minimum wage - was so large because the church performed similarly unsanctioned baptisms in the same lake in 2005, Krutko explained to Forum 18. Article 167 of the Administrative Violations Code punishes a repeat violation of legislation regulating mass public events with a fine of between 150 and 300 times the minimum wage, or imprisonment of between ten and fifteen days.

Pastor Poznyakovich confirmed that in 2005 he was fined 640,000 Belarusian Roubles (1,952 Norwegian Kroner, 235 Euros or 298 US Dollars) for performing baptisms, the independent Belarusian news agency Belapan reported on 31 August. He also maintained that the lake preferred by the church is "the cleanest in town", and that, while it is not officially recommended to swim in it, "neither is it forbidden to do so."

The Belarusian authorities are hostile to religious believers sharing their beliefs in public, and such religious activity faces numerous restrictions under the harsh Religion Law.

In the wake of presidential elections this spring, Reformed Baptist pastor Georgi Vyazovsky and religious freedom lawyer Sergei Shavtsov both served ten-day jail sentences under Article 167 of the Administrative Violations Code after organising unsanctioned religious meetings. On 13 July the Supreme Court upheld Minsk City Court's 26 May ruling dissolving Pastor Vyazovsky's Christ's Covenant Church.