Evicted from its church building in February 2021, banned from meeting for worship in the church car park, Minsk's New Life Pentecostal Church has now seen its building bulldozed.
The bulldozing – ordered by Capital Construction Management Company, owned by Minsk City Executive Committee – began on 20 June, within a day reducing much of the building to rubble.
The Company, the Office of the Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, and Minsk City Executive Committee would not explain why New Life’s church building – which it bought in 2002 – was destroyed.
On 20 June, the regime brought in bulldozers to start the destruction of New Life Pentecostal Church in the capital of Belarus, Minsk. By later in the day, much of the building was reduced to rubble. The decision to bulldoze the building – from which the Church was evicted in February 2021 - came from Capital Construction Management Company, which is owned by Minsk City Executive Committee.
In a 20 June video address outside the destroyed building, the Church's Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko described the destruction as "flagrant lawlessness". "God sees everything," he added, "and he sees today our suffering, our grief, our pain. He sees likewise today the mockery of wicked people. He sees their blasphemy".
Evangelical Focus interviewed Pastor Goncahrenko in June 2021, and he then lamented that “the state suppresses everything they identify as an enemy”.
The regime has since 2002 repeatedly denied New Life Church's requests for permission to change the official designation of the former cowshed it bought that year into a place of worship. This was in contrast to a disused railway carriage 500 metres from New Life's building which was without regime obstruction used from January 2001 by a community of the regime-supporting Belarusian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). That community has now built a church, also without any regime obstruction.
Forum 18 called the Head Office of Capital Construction Management Company on 22 June to find out why they demolished the building. The secretary answered nervously: "It's not a question to us, maybe it concerns the [company's] district division." The Deputy Director of Frunze District Capital Construction Management Company, Aleksandr Korzhanevsky, told Forum 18 that the New Life Church building is not a property they have responsibility for).
Andrei Aryayev, the Head of the Religious Department of the Office of the Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, absolutely refused to discuss the demolition of New Life Church. "I won't give any comments, ask Minsk City Executive Committee," he told Forum 18 before putting the phone down.
The secretary of the Deputy Head of Minsk City Executive Committee Aryom Tsuran refused to direct the call and recommended to call the press service. Ilona Illarionova from the Press Service told Forum 18 that she did not know about New Life Church and promised to collect information later. Neither the Head of the Ideology Department of Minsk City Executive Committee, Olga Chemodanova, nor the Ideology Coordination Section answered their phones when Forum 18 called.
New Life Church has long faced state pressure. In February 2021, police and bailiffs forcibly expelled the community from its church.
Evangelical Focus interviewed Pastor
The Church thinks this may be due to a video it posted online protesting against regime election fraud and violence. In September 2022, officials banned the church from meeting for worship in the car park and fined two pastors for leading open-air worship meetings.
Since being banned from meeting for worship in the grounds of its own church, New Life Church has had to meet online and for in-person meetings borrow the building of the Protestant God's Grace Church in Minsk.
New Life Church has been seeking a building to rent for worship meetings. However, it has been denied permission to rent buildings - even by organisations recommended to the Church by Minsk City Executive Committee officials, Pastor Goncharenko told Forum 18. Officials advised the Church to hold meetings in the cultural centre of Minsk Car Factory. "But they told us that there was no possibility to host us and refused to give a written denial." He noted that local authorities do not encourage organisations to rent premises for religious meetings.
Pastor Goncharenko thinks that buying a new building is not possible. "No-one will sell us a religious building, and religious communities are not allowed to have regular religious meetings in a non-religious building," he commented bitterly.
Rather than seeking meetings with officials, New Life Church is planning to send an open letter to the government setting out the facts. "All our meetings with officials ended up with them twisting whatever we said," Pastor Goncharenko told Forum 18. "They always try to find some trick even in our humanitarian and social projects".
After the destruction of New Life Church, human rights defenders and others drew parallels with another place of worship in the city that officials have closed, the Catholic Church of Saints Simon and Helena (known locally due to its brickwork as the Red Church). Officials closed the church for worship or any other activity after a suspicious minor fire in September 2022 (see below).
"I hope that at least they will not think of demolishing the Red Church in the same way," exiled Orthodox Christian and human rights defender Natallia Vasilevich noted on Telegram on 21 June.
On 2 June, a judge fined Vladimir Burshtyn – who is in his 70s – over a month's average pension for an outdoor meeting in Drogichin with fellow Baptists to share their faith. He has appealed against the fine, imposed in a court hearing fellow-Baptists were denied access to. Police held him overnight before the hearing, and Head of the local Ideology Department Svetlana Shchur insisted to Forum 18 that any event must have state permission.
On 2 June, the regime made public the draft of the proposed new Religion Law, prepared by the chief state religious affairs official, Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs Aleksandr Rumak. The proposed new Law harshens the restrictive 2002 Religion Law, which human rights defenders at the time publicly condemned.
Officials gave only 10 days for comments, which Minsk's Lawtrend Centre for Legal Transformation criticised given the "exceptional significance of the draft Law for religious and social life". The proposed new Law is due to be considered by the non-freely elected Parliament in September.
This article is an abridged version of report authored by Forum 18 News, an organisation in Norway working for freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).