Belarusian church members hunger strike for the right to worship on their property, 2006

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
While the hunger strike ended on October 26th, the church is still fighting for the use of their building, but their work is currently within the legal system
August 7,
2006
to
October 26,
2006
Location and Goals
Country: 
Belarus
Location City/State/Province: 
Minsk
Location Description: 
The New Life Church building
Goals: 
The direct goal was to save the New Life Church building as the congregation's meeting space. Hunger strikers also said they were striking for "religious liberty" in protest of President Lukashenko's repressive religious measures
 

Under the leadership of President Alexandr Lukashenko, Belarusians who do not practice Russian Orthodox Catholicism have had to deal with varying degrees of religious repression.

On October 21, 2002, Lukashenko approved a law on “Freedom of Faith and Religious Organization” that has made it extremely difficult for Protestant churches to register as religious organizations. In order for a church to register, it must have 10 separate registered groups, one of which had to have existed in 1982, at the height of Soviet religious repression. Without registration, churches cannot train clergy, run schools, circulate media, or have foreigners work as staff.

This law affected groups across the country, one such group being the New Life Church in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. The New Life church had over 1,000 members, but was denied registration. It had purchased a building in 2002 that had previously been used as a cowshed. Because of this, authorities said that it could only be used for sheltering cows (though, at this time animal husbandry was also banned within Minsk city limits). At the same time, however, state authorities did not allow the church to legalize its position as a congregation because of the 2002 law, so the church had no legal grounds to change the building’s designation to a place of worship. Both the pastor of the church, Vyacheslaw Goncharenko, and the church administrator, Vasily Yurevich, received heavy fines for praising god without a state sanction, and for holding religious services in a cowshed.

On August 17, 2005, the Minsk City Administrative Committee ordered the sale of the church property. The New Life Church challenged the ruling, but on October 27, 2005, Minsk’s Economic Court validated the order and the state chose to confiscate the property. The congregation continued to try to fight for the property through the courts, but the Minsk Territorial State Property moved forward with transferring a payment for the land to the congregation and told the members to vacate the premises before October 8, 2006. The pastor was also instructed to sign over the building, but the pastor refused (until then, the church remained the legal owner of the property). Sergi Lukanin, the church’s lawyer, claimed that the Minsk Property Fund was dealing with the building illegally. On August 7, 2006, the congregation sent an open letter to President Lukachenko with a 2,500-signature petition. However, this garnered no response from him or the authorities.

The church continued to refuse to sign the documents, and on October 6, 2006, seventeen members of the New Life Church began a hunger strike in the building in protest of the government’s actions in denying them religious liberty. A group of trucks, trailers, and bulldozers arrived to demolish the building, but ended up leaving later that day.

The news spread to Protestants across Belarus, and many traveled to Minsk to show support for the fasters, some staying a night or two in the church. On October 9, 500 people, both members and outsiders, attended a prayer service at the church to show support for the strikers. On October 10, another seventeen members of the church joined the hunger strike. The next day, Lukashenko passed a law against “extremism,” one of its tenets being “attempts to incite racial, ethnic, or religious discord.”

By October 13, the number of hunger strikers continued to grow. Banners inside the church said, “Stop discrimination against evangelical Christians in Belarus!” Meanwhile, the church was inundated with letters of support from America, Cyprus, Finland, Germany, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, Uganda, Ukraine, and the UK. 2,000 letters came from Finland alone. That same day, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative Fioan Feizer, along with U.S. Embassy representatives Laura Jordan and Nathan Lein visited the church to speak with the strikers and show their support. The congregation also held services in the building every evening.

On October 15, thousands of people held a common prayer service in the building to pray for the future of Christians in Belarus, and by the next day 180 people were participating in the hunger strike, preparing for the fight for the church to last for many months. Solidarity hunger strikes happened in at least 16 locations throughout Belarus.

By October 17, however, the health of some strikers was waning, particularly that of the elderly who had given up both food and water. One striker, Viktoria Medvedeva, said, “I am ready to starve until the authorities return our church.” The congregation also petitioned the authorities for permission to hold a public rally in Minsk’s Bangalore Square on October 21 in order to raise awareness of problems that Protestants faced in Belarus. They were granted permission to hold a demonstration with up to 700 participants. 2,000 people showed up, however, including members of the church, as well as Protestant groups from Belarus and beyond.

International support continued to grow as the hunger strike went into its third week. On October 23, former presidential opposition candidate Aleksandr Milinkevich visited the church, and Christian musician Aleksandr Patlis visited on October 24. Diplomats from the Minsk embassies of France, the Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden, the UK, and the US all visited on November 2. The previous day, 100 members of Latvia’s New Generation church had held a three-hour demonstration outside the Belarusian embassy in Latvia’s capital of Riga.

Throughout the strike, supporters from all over the world were sending letters to President Lukashenko in support of the New Life Church. In late October, Pastor Goncharenko was invited to see a top-ranking Presidential Administration official, Oleg Proleskovsky, who urged the pastor to re-submit the appeal for the property. High Economic Court chairman Viktor Kamenkov cancelled the Minsk City Economic Court’s validation of the order for the church to sell on October 26. Because of this, the congregation decided to suspend their hunger strike in order to go through the legal process once again, but said they would resume the hunger strike if their goals were not met. After two years of delays, the Higher Economic Court threw out the appeal on January 13, 2009. The New Life Church congregation continues to meet in the building, but the future of the building is still unclear.

Research Notes
Influences: 

None explicitly known, though hunger strikes have been common in Belarus over the past ten years, so it is possible these campaigners were influenced by other hunger strikes within Belarus.

Sources: 
Kendall, Elizabeth. “Church Hunger Strike in Belarus.” ASSIST News Service. Crosswalk.com: The Intersection of Faith and Life. <http://www.crosswalk.com/1437540/>.

Corley, Felix. “Belarus: Authorities prepare again to expel New Life church from its own building.” Forum 18 News Service. 24 August, 2009. <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1339>.

Fagan, Geraldine. “Belarus: Government to make U-turn on charismatic church?” Forum 18 News Service. October 20, 2006. <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=858>.

Fagan, Geraldine. “Belarus: Court to review charismatic church’s case.” Forum 18 News Service. November 3, 2006. <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=865>.

Additional Notes: 
Edited by Max Rennebohm (10/06/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Hannah Jones, 02/16/2011