Pastor in Belarus jailed for calling for prayer to end war in Ukraine

By Jack Bethel |
The Rev. Alyaksandr Zaretski.
The Rev. Alyaksandr Zaretski. | (X, formerly Twitter)

Authorities in Belarus this month sentenced a pastor to 15 days in jail for calling for prayer to end the Russian invasion of Ukraine after arresting him on Feb. 22, sources said.

The Rev. Alyaksandr Zaretski, who leads an evangelical church in Novolukomly, Chashnitsy District, Vitebsk Region, had spent two weeks in jail after his arrest for a sermon on Feb. 18 calling for the end of the invasion. Authorities had placed him under administrative arrest under Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code, which pertains to “distribution of extremist materials.” 

Pastor Zaretski was due for release on March 8, but police re-arrested him on March 5 or 6 (sources differ) under a law pertaining to “violation of the order of organization and holding of mass events.”

At his second hearing at Chashnytsky District Court around that time, he was sentenced to 15 days in jail, according to a “Guards On the Walls report” by Christian Evangelical City Church in Tallinn, Estonia. The state website listing court decisions confirmed on March 18 that Pastor Zaretski received the jail sentence at the court hearing in early March.

Pastor Zaretski reportedly said in his sermon, “Let’s pray for those who are in prisons for falsified reasons…Let’s pray for Ukraine, come to prayers for Ukraine.” 

Other comments attributed to Pastor Zaretski during his sermon were, “Look at the way higher officials say one thing, but people see another in the streets,” and “they tell us to say that everything is fine, that everything is nice and satisfactory, and sometimes it is easier to agree.”

Pastor Zaretsky reportedly told the court that his sermon words were taken out of context. He did not deny speaking about political prisoners. 

After his call for prayer, officials from the Chashnytskyi District Executive Committee had reported him to police. Three witnesses testified about the pastor’s sermon, and they reportedly passed information to court authorities. 

Court documents also implied the pastor criticized those supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Prosecutors in court suggested Pastor Zaretski “took part in an unauthorized mass event – picketing, without the appropriate permission from the administration of the district executive committee.”

He pleaded not guilty to charges of “violating regulations of holding public gatherings.” 

Pastor Zaretsky previously faced opposition and imprisonment from Belarusian authorities. On April 20 he was detained for “liking and commenting on materials from internet resources recognized as extremist,” according to the Estonian church report.

Police arrested him under Article 19.11 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Republic of Belarus, and he spent a month in prison, serving two sentences of 15 days.

In 2020, the pastor signed a collective open letter against violence with “Christians of Belarus,” according to Charter 97, a pro-human rights body for Belarus, based in Warsaw. Afterwards, “he and his community were repeatedly harassed by law enforcement officers,” according to the organization. 

In July 2021, security forces stopped and searched Pastor Zaretsky. He faced an administrative case in November of that year for “minor inaccuracies in the registration of humanitarian cargo,” according to the Guards On The Walls report.  

The jailing of the pastor this month followed an official crackdown against religions by the government in Belarus, as reported previously by Christian Daily International

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed legal amendments on Dec. 30 forcing religious groups to act within state control. This included a requirement for churches to register or face “criminal or administrative” punishments. 

Another recent case involved the arrest of the Rev. Igor Kovalchuk, jailed for 15 days in February. Kovalchuk is the former rector of the parish of the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

Upon his return from a visit to Italy, police arrested him for allegedly subscribing to “extremist” websites on his cell phone. Christian Vision reported the arrest occurred under Article 19.11 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Republic of Belarus. 

Just under 60 percent of Belarusians identify as as Christians, according to a Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs report, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. That includes 82 percent identifying as Orthodox, 12 percent Roman Catholics and 6 percent from other denominations. 

The report notes 1,005 religious communities representing Protestant Christians, alongside 21 associations, 22 missions and five religious schools comprising 14 religious movements. 

On Dec. 4, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a report on religious freedom in Belarus. 

“The religious freedom situation in Belarus continues to deteriorate as Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka subjugates every aspect of social life to the state’s security and bureaucratic apparatuses,” the USCIRF report noted.

The report also acknowledged the stricter conditions under the new religion legal amendments in 2023.  

“Law enforcement agencies harass Protestants who conduct ordinary religious activities without state approval, and local authorities pressure Roman Catholics by targeting their houses of worship, including Minsk’s iconic Church of Saints Simon and Helena (also known as the Red Church),” the report stated. “Christian religious leaders of all denominations are often detained, fined, imprisoned, and forced into exile for activities that the state perceives as political in nature.”