By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent at BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest
MINSK/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– Authorities in Belarus have ordered the country’s largest evangelical congregation to evict its building in Minsk and there are concerns over the health of its pastor, the church confirmed Friday, June 14.
The New Life Church said it has “declared a day of round-the-clock fasting and prayer” about “the demand to confiscate the church building by the Minsk City authorities” and the health of Pastor Slava Goncharenko” who suffered a “pre-stroke condition”.
In a statement monitored by BosNewsLife the New Life Church said it was facing “spiritual opposition” in the autocratically ruled nation.
New Life Church said it had received a court summon “from the executor of Minsk Economic Court, O.N. Scherbovich” ordering the congregation to “vacate within seven days its building,” a former cow barn it bought and renovated.
There were reports that the eviction had been “suspended” but not canceled with Christians still fearing a police raid.
The court ruling came after the Household Management Department of Moscow District of Minsk City appealed against a previous decision not to evict the church.
Church lawyer Sergei Lukanin expressed his concern about the situation. “I would like to remind that in 2009 following the decision of Minsk Economic Court the building was committed to the ownership of the Household Management Department of Moscow District of Minsk City,” he said.
“And as long as the ownership belongs to this organization, based on these documents, it has a legal right to request the court decision to be executed,” Lukanin added.
News about the planned eviction came while Pastor Goncharenko was hospitalized, though his condition had improved, New Life Church said.
“Vyacheslav Goncharenko is being provided with professional medical aid. His health condition has improved [but] he needs some rest.”
During a prayer service one believer, only identified as Maria, reportedly urged the congregation not to give up hope. Quoting Bible verse Luke 10-19 she said: “… Behold, I give to you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the authority of the enemy. And nothing shall by any means hurt you ”
After that, “the believers lifted up their voices in prayer to combat this spiritual attack,” the church added.
There has been international concerns about the treatment by authorities of the church.
Late last year, Britain’s deputy head of mission in Belarus, Jim Couzens, reportedly visited the church and said that the European union follows the situation closely amid concerns the eviction would violate human rights.
New Life Church, which started from a small youth initiative in 1991, calls itself one of many “Full Gospel” churches in Minsk. Along with 14 smaller branch churches it boosts nearly 2,000 members, including over 300 children, according to church statistics.
The church troubles come at a time that raids and fines have resumed against Baptists in Belarus who meet for worship without state permission, rights activists said Friday, June 14.
Advocacy group Forum 18 told BosNewsLife in a statement that separate raids on Sunday worship services at both congregations of the Council of Churches Baptists in the south-eastern town of Gomel, three local leaders have been fined.
“Pastor Nikolai Varushin was fined about one month’s average local wages, and Pastor Pyotr Yashchenko and Valentin Shchedrenok were fined much smaller amounts,” the group said.
“These are the first such raids and fines in almost a year.”
Police reportedly said that had been initiated by the KGB secret police, with the aim of “revealing criminal groups of the unregistered Baptists”.
“We [the police] deal with family quarrels and street fights, and are not interested in religion,” police said in a statement. “In this mission we only lent assistance.”
It comes amid wider concerns about a perceived crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko and his allies against groups deemed dangerous to their power base, including religious and political groups.
Activists say the country has been ruled by Lukashenko with an increasingly iron fist since 1994.
In early 2005, Belarus was listed by the United States as Europe’s only remaining “outpost of tyranny”.
In late 2008, there were some signs of a slight easing of tensions with the West, though this proved to be only a temporary thaw, according to the European Union and United States.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is ‘Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals’ since 2004).
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