Crack Down on Pentecostals in Belarus

MINSK/BUDAPEST, (ANS) -- Pentecostal Christians in Belarus have been told by authorities not to pray in tongues as part of an apparent crack-down against non Orthodox churches, ASSIST News Service learned Thursday, November 14.

The latest developments came just two weeks after President Aleksandr Lukashenko signed what human rights workers described as "Europe's most restrictive" religion law in the former Soviet republic.

Referring to the new legislation, officials of the Frunze district in the capital Minsk told Pentecostal pastor Aleksandr Ruskevich that believers of his church "were not allowed to pray in tongues, only in Russian," said Keston News Service (KNS).

Many Christians regard speaking and praying in 'tongues' as a language and manifestation of the Holy Spirit from God, and it often plays an important part in Pentecostal meetings.

"Summoned" by Authorities

The pastor learned about the new anti-tongues rules after he was "summoned" by the executive committee of the district to explain the activities of his church reported KNS, which monitors religious persecution.

A spokesperson for the Pentecostal Union, which unites 64 Pentecostal congregations in Belarus, told reporters his organization feared that such incidents would "increase" when the religion law becomes official Saturday, November 16.

Pastor Vasily Moskalenko of the Grace of Christ Pentecostal Church in Minsk also said that neighbours have complained of small groups meeting in private homes for worship. "This began after the new law was adopted," he was quoted as saying by KNS.

In addition Pentecostal believers have reportedly been pressured by the influential Orthodox church leadership and local officials not to build churches.

Church Construction Threatened

However KNS said that in the town of Ruba a Pentecostal church has pledged not to bow for pressure from a local Orthodox priest and a regional deputy to halt the construction of its building. Besides Pentecostal Christians other groups are expected to suffer as well under the new legislation, which bans all "unregistered religious activity."

In addition all communities with fewer than 20 members will become illegal and any religious activity in private homes – apart from occasional, small scale meetings – will be forbidden. Church officials also fear the law will lead to the expulsion of foreign priests, pastors and missionary workers as only religious communities with "a registered umbrella body" will be able to invite foreign citizens for religious work.

The publishing and importing of christian literature is also nearly impossible, because all religious literature will be subject to compulsory prior censorship.

Doubts About Status

Yet, Aleksandr Kalinov of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs told KNS that "the law will not harm the rights of any religious community," as it will not "lower" the legal status of already functioning groups. Human rights workers have their doubts.

"They always say that laws have no retroactive force, but I believe this one will have," Oleg Gulak, executive director of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, was quoted as saying by KNS.

In a last-ditch protest against the new law, two people – among them the Catholic Igor Zakrevsky from the town of Borisov - reportedly staged a demonstration on Independence Square in central Minsk on November 8. The protesters were detained by police of the city's Moscow district, KNS said.