Belarus is known as “Europe’s last dictatorship”. Life in this country, bordering Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Ukraine and Poland, is hard for everyone, but especially for religious people, who frequently suffer restrictions on their freedom of worship.
The latest episode in this sad saga has been the imposition by the State of “unaffordable” rates for police, medical workers and cleaners on a Greco-Catholic pilgrimage, the high cost of which forced the cancellation of the event at the last minute.
Driving the news
In early July, the Belarusian Greco-Catholic Church was preparing for the 25th edition of its only national pilgrimage, as the Norwegian human rights organization that defends religious freedom in the world, Forum 18, reports.
The pilgrimage runs about 100km between the cities of Vitebsk and Polotsk, in the north of the country, in commemoration of the martyrdom of five Basilian monks 400 years ago.
Pilgrimage organisers had obtained the necessary permits from the civil authorities to carry out the event.
Although the authorities had warned the Church that it would have to pay money for security costs, possible medical treatments and maintenance on the route, those responsible for the event were confident they could convince the powers that it be that the fees were not necessary and that the faithful could take care of these jobs.
But finally, the pilgrimage wasn’t to be.
The pilgrimage organisers managed to haggle down the compulsory fees from 3,825 Belarusian rubles (1,650 euros) to 3,000 (1,295 euros), but the amount was still unaffordable.
It turned out that quoted figure, too, would only cover charges for police, and did not include paramedics and municipal cleaners.
The 3,000 ruble figure would have been the equivalent of one day’s average pay for each of the 100 planned participants.
With this setback, pilgrimage chief organiser Father Dimitry Grishan was forced to cancel the event just one day before it was to begin.
Grishan questioned the authorities’ insistence in charging pilgrims for security costs.
“From whom they are going to protect us? For 24 years there have never been any conflicts during the pilgrimage”, the priest lamented.
Why it matters
The culprit for the high fees levied on the pilgrimage is the controversial law known as ‘Decree 49’, passed this January by the Council of Ministers of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, in office since 1994.
Thanks to this decree, the organizers of all approved public events in Belarus must pay compulsory fees for security, possible medical attention and cleaning.
But it turns out that the authorities are more zealous for the money in certain cases than others.
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For the record
In theory, religious events are exempt from payment.
But in practice, exemptions only apply to events organised in religious sites themselves. That is, not out of these bounds, in a public area, as was the case with the Greek Catholic pilgrimage.
Grishan says the high fees are an “injustice”.
He complained that the Government is favouring with its selective application of the fees those events “which the state considers useful” and finds “desirable for spiritual and moral revival”.
Many opposition politicians and human rights defenders also criticise Decree 49.
But it’s not only them.
Other figures of the Catholic Church of the country also warn against the measure, which they admit has affected them in differing measures.
Vitebsk priest Vyacheslav Barok said that the decree doesn’t make for good law, because it depends a lot on how the authorities interpret and apply it in specific cases.
“The law should be precise and clear,” Barok told Forum 18.
“Currently the authorities have the leverage to influence a religious organisation”, the priest denounced.
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