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Christian Music Festival Banned in Belarus
29 September 2008

An Belarusian ideology official in Borisov (Minsk Region) halted a Christian music festival minutes before it was about to begin.

According to a story by Geraldine Fagan writing for the Forum 18 News Service, overtly Christian bands such as Salvation - which was due to headline the Sept. 16 first evening of the Borisov event - have not previously been targeted by the authorities. Some are even among Belarus' most popular performers.

Belarus is located in Eastern Europe, east of Poland

The six-day free festival - a local Catholic initiative in conjunction with Orthodox and Protestants - "was to be our joint witness to Borisov, to show we're not just on our own, but believe in one God," Father Zbigniew Grygorcewicz, one of the organizers, told Forum 18.

More than 30 Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant bands from across Belarus whose music mainly deals with Christian themes had agreed to play for free at the festival, Grygorcewicz told Forum 18. Three concerts a day were planned for children, adults and young people, 20,000 invitations had been sent out and 5,000 balloons ordered for the children, he said.

The organizers obtained written state permission for the festival - in accordance with the 2003 Demonstrations Law - a week beforehand, Grygorcewicz emphasized to Forum 18. According to Article 6 of that Law, the authorities must notify the organizers in writing no later than five days in advance should they not permit an event, giving reasons for their decision.

Grygorcewicz told Forum 18 that about ten minutes before the first concert was to begin, however, the head of Borisov Municipal Executive Committee's Ideology Department, Lyudmila Gornak, arrived at the marquee venue, announced the event was banned and then left.

Forum 18 said that according to the Catholic priest, following prayer by church leaders, Psalmyary (Psalmists), the band scheduled to open the festival - played one song called "There is a God in Belarus." The organizers then distributed copies of John's Gospel to the approximately 500 people in the audience before closing up the event.

Grygorcewicz told Forum 18 that subsequently, state representatives claimed the original permission was no longer valid, that they had made a mistake in granting it, and that not everything was in order with the event's preparations, but did not elaborate further.

"When you organize something like this you also need approval from the police, fire service, health and safety officers," the priest explained to Forum 18. He added, "But we had all of that."

The Christian festival was not banned but put on hold, Lyudmila Gornak, the local ideology official, emphasized to Forum 18. She said this was because the organizers' application for permission to hold the event did not correspond with legal requirements.

Asked by Forum 18 to explain, Gornak said the application contained "mistakes." when asked for examples, she claimed she had told the organizers what they were, that they had agreed with her and did not have any further complaint.

The Christian festival was to be the first event of its kind in Borisov, and the churches will try to hold it again, Forum 18 reported Grygorcewicz said. The organizers are currently considering filing suit for compensation.

Forum 18 said Grygorcewicz replaced Father Robert Krzywicki, another Polish priest, after he was expelled from Belarus without explanation at the end of 2005. Krzywicki had headed Borisov's Descent of the Holy Spirit Roman Catholic parish for more than a decade. Shortly after leaving, he Robert told Forum 18 that he attributed his expulsion to his work with young people in the town - both Catholics and non-Catholics - and his involvement with other Christian Churches in ecumenical and humanitarian events.

Forum 18 said that a little over half of Belarus' 381 Catholic priests are foreigners, most of whom are Polish. Under a Jan. 30 decree decree controlling foreign clergy, they may conduct religious activity only within houses of worship belonging to or premises continuously rented by their community.

The transfer of foreign religious personnel from one religious organization to another, such as between parishes, requires permission from the appropriate state official dealing with religious affairs, even for a single worship service.

Forum 18 said that during a recent official visit to Belarus, Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone gave Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs Leonid Gulyako the thanks of Pope Benedict XVI "for the religious liberty that Belarus enjoys," according to the official website of the Catholic Church in Belarus.

Forum 18 said the cardinal also told a June 22 news conference that he believes the 2002 Religion Law to be "a good law reflecting the necessary protection and respect for the rights of the five main confessions traditional to Belarus."

Forum 18 said in what they believe to be "the largest non-political civil campaign in Belarusian history," Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants collected a 50,000 signature petition against the 2002 Law in 2007-08. They affirmed that "we are defending the rights of all Christians (Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants), all citizens of Belarus. The Law violates the rights of all people, even atheists."

Forum 18 said that taking note of Belarusian human rights defenders' concerns, a May 22 2008 European Parliament resolution "deeply regrets the 2002 Law on Freedom of Religion and Religious Organizations, which contravenes international principles of religious freedom and human rights, including those laid out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)."

It recognizes that as a result of the Law, "the activities of many religious communities have been restricted and their leaders are being subjected to constant harassment, prosecution, fines, and imprisonment."

The Parliament's resolution also calls on the Belarusian government to revise the 2002 Law and "to restore procedures guaranteeing respect for freedom of religion." (END)

For more background information see Forum 18's Belarus religious freedom survey at www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=888.

Editor's note from Dan Wooding. By way of clarification, ANS has received written permission from Forum 18 New Service to re-work any of their stories so they may reach an even wider audience.

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