The Words of the Burton Family

In Belarus a Brave Band of Believers Tell Their Story to a Nation

Douglas Burton
March 2, 2010

Freedom of speech and assembly is taken for granted in the United States, but not so for Unificationists seeking to practice their faith in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Take the case of Belarus, a country in the geographic middle of Europe with a population of 10 million people, bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. For most of the 20th century, Belarus was a client state of Moscow, and militant atheism was actively propagated by the government at every level. For 70 years, every school child was taught the Marxist dictum that "religion was the opiate of the people."

At the end of the 20th century the government's tolerance of religious practice somewhat improved. Belarus today has two sanctioned, tradition religions -- the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. On the other hand, the so-called non-traditional religious movements get the cold shoulder from Belarussian authorities.

In 2009 a group of Belarussian citizens attempted to formally register the Unification Church in Belarus but instead were met with persecution from the Belarussian KGB. Troubles began early last year when the Belorussian government canceled the residence visa of Rev. Sang An Kwon of Korea, a trusted teacher to scores of young adults in Minsk. Rev. Kwon and his family had to return to Korea.

Then Eugeny Volkov, 25, one of the applicants for church registration, was charged on June 18, 2009, with violating Belarus Criminal Code 193-1, which prohibits evangelizing by unregistered religious groups. According to rough translations of the charging documents, Mr. Volkov

"has implemented on the territory of Minsk the activity of the religious organization 'Unification Movement' (Moon's Church) unregistered in the prescribed manner, who has united a group of citizens of the Republic of Belarus as its members and at the same time exercised managerial functions which were manifested in the organizing and holding of regular meetings of organization's members, in recruiting new members, [and] in the dissemination of religious illegal printed matter of Unification Movement."

Police searched several of the homes of the Reverend Moon's followers, in one case without a warrant. Many followers were called to the public prosecutor's office for interrogation. Mr. Igor Valyuk, an active follower of Rev. Moon and a respected former teacher who held the confidence of the church applicants, hired a defense lawyer, but the prosecutor refused to allow the lawyer to accompany him to hearings.

Mr. Volkov's case was reported by Charter 97, a human rights NGO active in Belarus, which let the world know that he was the first person to be charged under a controversial law passed in 2006 that criminalized a wide range of activities by nonregistered churches and political parties. Charter 97 reported on June 30 that "It should be noted, that from 2006, when Article 193-1 entered into force, it's the first time that a criminal case is filed against representatives of unregistered religious organizations."

The sad fact is, that according to this law,if you organize a club to drink vodka, no state agency can make legal claims against you, but if you gather a group to study the Bible or other religious doctrines that lead you to goodness, that teach you to be a good citizen, and a patriot of your country, you are a prosecutable as a criminal. And there is no allowance for public-minded private groups inspired by a religious teaching. The law is stark and final.

In order to justify a criminal case and to create widespread antipathy towards the Unification Movement, the state-supported national TV network (ONT) aired several so-called news documentaries about Rev. Moon's followers. The shows included footage of erotic dances of half-naked women and religious sessions involving hypnotherapy -- none of which were remotely connected to the believers in Minsk. Independent observers in Belarus found out about the inept smear campaign and wrote several positive articles of support in two Belorussian independent newspapers. In order to defend their reputation and their beliefs, Belorussian followers of Rev. Moon sent a joint letter to the President of the Republic of Belarus. Several letters were sent individually to ONT to refute officially the program's false statements. There was also a letter to the state organ responsible for religious affairs with a request to explain the situation regarding Unificationists and their true beliefs.

On August 18, 2009 the government's investigator unexpectedly announced that the case was being closed for lack of evidence. But the police hadn't given up. They re-opened the case against Mr. Volkov on November 30, 2009, and at that time as well there was a propaganda campaign against the Unification Movement on TV and in the state-controlled daily newspaper, The Minsk Courier.

Rev. Moon's followers defended themselves and their honor by taking their story to independent media. "We wanted people to hear truth about True Parents, about their life and motivation, about their achievements. We wanted them to see the real situation," according to one Olga Minka, a Belarussian follower of Rev. Moon. She added: "Also we saw that this negative information on TV and in newspapers affected not just us but also our parents, our relatives, our friends -- people who are dear to us. So we couldn't keep silent, we had to respond," he added.

And again there was an unexpected surprise: on December 30, 2009 the criminal case was dropped. Nobody knows the reason why it was dropped so quickly. There is just a supposition the order to drop the case came down from a higher level.

"We learned a lot from that year 2009", according to Sergey Sharonov, a Belarussian believer who wrote to "First, we deeply understood the importance of unity with God and with each other. If you are united you can really break through. Second, we learned the importance to be more active to protect our beliefs, to be proud of who we are. We can see that the attitude towards the religion is changing more and more as people follow their conscience and search for the truth. And we are very optimistic towards the possibility to register the Unification Church in Belarus. We can see the great potential for Unification principles to be much more widely understood and accepted in Belarus".

Belarus as of this writing is still covered with snow and ice and may appear to be frozen too in the ideology of a bygone age, yet there is reason enough to suspect that a crack in the ice is already visible. 

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