Shock Victory for Oppressed Belarus Church

Members of the persecuted New Life Church in Minsk, Belarus, have celebrated victory after a shock ruling from the country's highest economic court that could finally set the church free from years of constant harassment by the authorities.

|QUOTE|The highest economic court of Belarus has cancelled all previous court decisions against the church and is re-examining the case, reports Mission Network News.

New Life Church became the victim of state oppression after a new religion law came into effect in 2002, dubbed "the most repressive law in Europe". In the same year the 600-member New Life Church, situated on the outskirts of Minsk, bought a cowshed to use as a church building. Every government department had given the church approval to change the designated land usage needed to renovate the shed into a church but the last remaining department, the religious affairs department, refused to grant the necessary approval. Then in early 2005 the church faced several attempts by the authorities to shut it down.

Now the ruling from the economic court has given fresh hope that the church will finally be able to worship in peace.

Glenn Penner of Voice of the Martyrs Canada explains: "What makes this so unusual is that this is a court body that normally only examines matters of what is considered of state importance. So this is quite unprecedented for an independent, non-registered church to get this kind of attention from the Belarusian government."

The Belarusian government's sudden change in heart is the result of the international attention brought on by a hunger strike by some of the church members. The hunger strike prompted many government leaders around the world to contact the Belarusian government voicing their concern about the illegal action against the church.

It is this international pressure that has made the difference, according to Penner. "The Belarusian government to this point has not shown an awful lot of susceptibility to international pressure and this would seem to indicate that they're nervous about cracking down on this church any further," he said.

According to Penner, the church has continued to function normally despite the enormous difficulties they have faced over the years, including numerous fines, threats and general harassment.

"They've continued to meet in the church. They've continued to operate their programmes as a church and their outreach to their community. The church has continued to grow and they've continued to worship the Lord regardless of the harassments that they've faced," he said.

And the testimony of the believers at New Life has been powerful, says Penner. "They have really worked hard at maintaining their integrity. They have consistently said 'We're going to demonstrate peacefully, that we're going to be praying for our government. We're not going to allow them to run all over us and do that which is illegal.' And I believe that in this they have really responded very graciously and very much in line with the Spirit of Christ."

Penner is hopeful for the future of the church: "I'm very optimistic that this church could continue to function normally, that they're going to be able to maintain their building and be able to continue worshipping as they have for the last several years. I'm hopeful that this is a sign of good things to come and that we've turned the corner and that the New Life Church is going to be able to continue to function as God intended them to."