Belarusian authorities begin destroying church belonging to alternative branch of Orthodoxy

MINSK, Belarus - With the help of police, prisoners and border guards, authorities in a Belarusian border town on Friday began destroying only church in the country belonging to an alternative branch of Orthodoxy.

Galina Goncharova, deputy chairwoman of the Brest district administration, confirmed that workers were using four cranes and other heavy machinery to destroy the building erected by the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church in Pogranichny, on the border with Poland. She said police and prisoners were taking part in the destruction.

The Rev. Yan Spasyuk said by telephone from Pogranichny that the destruction began overnight. He said that by late afternoon the crosses had been removed and workers had begun knocking down walls of the church.

The church was erected earlier this year without official permission. The Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was not able to obtain permission since authorities have refused to register its parishes. The church says the government discriminates against it, favoring the Russian Orthodox Church, which is dominant in this former Soviet republic.

Goncharova said the administration called out border guards to cordon off Pogranichny to prevent journalists from coming to see the demolition.

"Let us demolish it in peace, and then you can sue us and do whatever you want," Goncharova said.

Spasyuk said his parish of 100 people is one of 70 unregistered parishes of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, uniting about 10,000 people. He said church members were appealing to Orthodoxy's world leader, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, for help fighting the demolition.

President Alexander Lukashenko runs Belarus with an iron hand, permitting little political dissent and squeezing the independent media.

Last month, the parliament adopted a law on religion that enshrines the Russian Orthodox Church's dominant role and limits the activities of many other religions.