MINELRES: KNS BELARUS: Europe's Most Repressive Relion Law Signed Today

MINELRES moderator minelres@lists.delfi.lv
Sat Nov 2 13:08:21 2002

Original sender: Keston Institute <keston.institute@keston.org>

KESTON NEWS SERVICE, 20.00, 31 October 2002. 
Reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
and post-communist lands.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service 

Belarus' highly repressive new religion law  the most restrictive in
Europe - was signed by President Aleksandr Lukashenko this morning (31
October), the official news agency Belta reported. The law will come
into force ten days after its official publication. News of the
president's signature brought a mixture of resignation and defiance
among minority religious communities, many of which have protested
vigorously against its adoption (see separate KNS article).

The new law outlaws unregistered religious activity; requires compulsory
prior censorship for all religious literature; bans foreign citizens
from leading religious organisations; religious education is restricted
to faiths that have ten registered communities, including at least one
that had registration in 1982; and there is a ban on all but occasional,
small religious meetings in private homes.

The new law was approved by the lower house of parliament on 27 June and
by the upper house on 2 October. The president signed the law
immediately after his return from a visit to the Gulf states. It remains
unclear why it took him so long to decide whether to sign or not (see
KNS 23 October 2002) or whether indeed he signed it within the period
specified by Belarus' constitution.

Immediately the law enters into force, religious organisations must
begin bringing their statutes into line with the new law. In any case,
parts of their statute that contradict the new law will no longer be
operative. All religious organisations must apply for re-registration
within two years. Parliament will have to approve amendments to a range
of other laws and regulations to bring them into line with the new
provisions of the law.

Keston tried to find out from the government's Committee for Religious
and Ethnic Affairs in Minsk what measures will now be taken against
religious communities, but was told that all officials were on a work
visit to Polotsk today, 31 October. Keston could not reach officials of
the committee in Polotsk on their mobile phones. (END)

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service 

Minority religious communities and human rights groups have greeted the
president's signature on the repressive new religion law (see separate
KNS article) with a mixture of resignation and defiance, Keston News
Service has learnt in a survey of opinion. "The law has been adopted and
signed," declared Bishop Sergei Khomich, leader of the Pentecostal
Union, the second largest religious faith in the number of registered
communities. "There is nothing we can do about it although we believe it
is undemocratic and violates the constitution." Sergei Malakhovsky,
chairman of the Minsk Hare Krishna community, agreed. "This new law will
bring a lot of harm to religious communities, instituting harsher
control not just on new religious groups but even on the Orthodox

Their opposition was echoed by one of the few parliamentary deputies to
oppose the law. "I continue to regard it as an anti-constitutional law,"
Ivan Pashkevich, a member of the lower house of parliament and a
vigorous opponent of the law, told Keston from Minsk on 31 October. "I
fear there will now be conflict between religious confessions as a
result of this law." (The security police, the KGB, also opposed the law
on these grounds.)

Among human rights groups which have opposed the law is the Belarusian
Helsinki Committee. Its executive chairman, Oleg Gulak, told Keston on
31 October that he now expects a severe worsening of the situation for
religious minorities. "Many communities will lose registration." 

He also complained about the time it will take religious communities to
navigate their way through the bureaucracy to achieve re-registration.
"Religious organisations will have to drop everything and spend the next
two or three months running around from one office to another paying
fees and getting approval, just for this. If even one little thing in
their statutes does not accord with the law re-registration will be
denied." He warned that small religious communities will not have the
legal knowledge or perseverance to achieve re-registration. "Many of
them won't bother. They will go underground, saying that they won't be
able to fight against this new law."

Gulak believes that although the Russian Orthodox Church leadership has
strongly backed the new law, there are many priests and laypeople in the
Church who do not support its restrictive provisions. "The harsh
leadership of the Orthodox Church has suppressed all dissent," he
maintained. (Keston has independently learnt of one Minsk-based Orthodox
priest who opposed the new law who was told during the summer by a more
senior clergyman not to voice his dissatisfaction publicly as the
Orthodox Church had put great efforts into having the law adopted.)

The official spokesman for the Orthodox Church declined to comment on
the president's signature. "You will have to speak to Andrei Aleshko,
the Church's legal adviser," Andrei Petrashkevich told Keston from Minsk
on 31 October. Keston could not immediately reach Aleshko, who was in
Polotsk, apparently with officials of the government's Committee for
Religious and Ethnic Affairs.

Catholic leaders were reluctant to speak out against the new law. Fr
Igor Kandraceu, a Greek Catholic priest from the western city of Brest,
was highly guarded in his comments. "This new law is based on the
contemporary reality of Belarus," he told Keston, stressing that he was
giving his personal view. "It is impossible that any other religion law
could have been adopted." He said his Church had to be cautious and
loyal. "We will have to accept the new law and work under it. We have no
other choice." He declined to speculate on any concrete changes that
might follow the law's adoption, though he said he believed there would
not be any immediate significant changes.

Equally cautious was Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, the Vatican nuncio in
Minsk. "There are so many different approaches to this new law. Others
will compare it with international standards. We have not yet done
that." He said the Catholic Church in Belarus would be watching to see
how the new law is implemented. "It is important for the law to
guarantee us and others the freedom to continue our religious work." He
stressed that the Catholic Church is not a new community in Belarus.
"The community is already here. Unfortunately we have been left without
priests and it is difficult to train them in a very short period of
time." He said of the approximately 300 priests, about half are from
other countries. "This is our major concern for the future. It remains
to be seen if the new law will make this more difficult."

Although far more hostile, Bishop Khomich said his Pentecostal Union
would have to wait to see how the law is implemented. "The law isn't
everything  practice is more important," he told Keston. "There are
many good laws that aren't applied. We hope this bad law will likewise
not be applied." He said the only way to overturn the law would be to
gather 50,000 signatures to demand that parliament amend the law. Even
with that number of signatures, he believed parliament would be unlikely
to do so. "It was after all the same parliament that adopted this law."

Khomich's concerns were echoed by Bishop Nikolai Sinkovets, head of the
Baptist Union. "The law is bad, of course," he told Keston. "We are
worried. We will have to think now what we can do. We have already made
our views known to the government and we'll have to see how the new law
is implemented." His views were repeated almost verbatim by Aleksandr
Sakovich, leader of the Full Gospel Union. He pointed out that laws are
often adopted that are not put into practice.

Sakovich was also concerned that his Union would lose registration as an
umbrella body. "We had no registered communities until 1991, so we don't
have the twenty years' existence needed," he told Keston. He said that
if attempts are made to apply the law retroactively to deprive
organisations of registration that have it now, his Church will
challenge this through the courts.

Another community which will lose the registration of its umbrella body
are the Jehovah's Witnesses, who were barred from registering during
almost the entire Soviet period and therefore do not have a community
which had registration back in 1982. However, Keston was unable to reach
any leaders in Belarus to learn their reaction to the new law.

Outspoken in his hostility was Father Yan Spasyuk, the leader in Belarus
of the small unregistered Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church whose
newly-constructed church building in the village of Pahranichny was
bulldozed by the authorities in August (see KNS 2 August 2002). "Four
weeks ago our Church decided to launch a petition against the new law,
to show officials the strength of people's opposition to it," he told
Keston on 31 October. 

Father Spasyuk declared  like members of other faiths  that some
believers will have to return to the underground. "It is not a critical
situation," he maintained. "People got used to working in the
underground over the past thirty or forty years."

Pastor Lyavon Lipen of Minsk's registered Reformed Church told Keston he
regarded the new law as "highly discriminatory". "It restricts civil and
religious rights. It is very sad that it was adopted." He said he
expected "very negative consequences". He complained that the preamble
to the law failed to name the Calvinists as one of the "traditional
faiths", despite their important role in Belarus' history since the
sixteenth century. "Our lawmakers have given the impression that they
know nothing of Belarusian history."

While others are reluctant to speculate about the concrete impact of the
new law for fear of uttering self-fulfilling prophecies, Pastor Lipen
believes it is possible "active believers" will soon be imprisoned. "Any
attempt to read the Bible with people will be punished by fines," he
maintained. "It may go further than that." He said members of the larger
religious groups may have some protection, "but small groups like us
have no-one to rely on". He pointed out that even under the old law the
authorities were restricting places where worship could take place and
preventing evangelistic activity. 

Pastor Lipen complained that the Geneva-based World Alliance of Reformed
Churches had done nothing to speak up against the new law. "Although
they've been informed about this they have been silent."

Malakhovsky feared that all religious communities will suffer during the
compulsory re-registration round. "Many communities will lose their
registration." He pointed out that his Hare Krishna community had
already been denied permission to register a headquarters, despite
having seven registered communities and a further eight which have been
trying to gain registration (see KNS 12 August 2002). "Despite four
court hearings we have failed to get the State Committee to register the
headquarters," he told Keston.

Regretting the passing of what he called the "highly restrictive"
religion law was Artur Livshits, a lawyer for the Union of Councils for
Soviet Jews and a member of the Civic Initiative For Freedom of
Conscience, which has been leading a campaign against the law. In August
the Civic Initiatie published a 244-page "White Book" containing
letters, drafts, appeals and newspaper articles about the adoption of
the new law.

An official of the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of
the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) told
Keston from Warsaw on 31 October that the OSCE reiterated its concerns
about the new religion law expressed when the law was first adopted by
the lower house of parliament in the summer. (END) 

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