BELARUS: US Rejects Charges of 'Fanning Inter-religious Conflict'.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 7 March 2001

Controversy has surrounded claims by a commentator on state-run television that American spies are deliberately fanning inter-religious conflict in Belarus. The deputy chairman of the Belarusian government's State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs declined to discuss the claims with Keston News Service, dismissing any attempt to discuss the issue with laughter. However, the deputy head of the U.S. embassy in Minsk - while stressing that `we do not comment on alleged intelligence matters' – vigorously rejected the commentator's charge that the U.S fans inter-religious conflict as `a grotesque lie'. `For the Belarusian authorities to assert that the U.S. government is involved in any way in religious groups in Belarus is a flagrant lie,' John Kunstadter told Keston from Minsk on 6 March. `Our only involvement is to pay attention to religious persecution.'

The commentator, Aleksandr Zimovsky, made the allegations on a special edition of his weekly news comment show Resonance entitled `The KGB against the CIA', aired on state-controlled Belarusian Television and Radio - the only nationwide television station - on 28 February. Zimovsky is known for his virulent attacks on all perceived opponents of President Aleksandr Lukashenko.

Zimovsky's wide-ranging claims included allegations that as soon as the U.S. Embassy was established in Minsk after Belarus gained independence the CIA began recruiting agents. `Over the past eight years, about 430 agents of various US special services have visited Belarus through the US embassy in Belarus alone.' Zimovsky claimed the CIA was focusing on three main subjects in Belarus: `First, preparation and incitement of materials aimed at discrediting all issues of Belarusian policy. Second, affairs aimed at artificially creating and escalating political and economic conflicts between Belarus and other states. Third, financial assistance to Belarusian opposition groups and their leaders, artificially forcing separatist moods and religious conflicts.'

Contacted by telephone in Minsk on 6 March, the deputy chairman of the state committee for religious affairs Ivan Yanovich shrugged off all Keston's enquiries about whether his committee shared Zimovsky's belief that U.S. agents are fomenting inter-religious conflict in Belarus. `We don't have such information on spies or on what they are doing,' he told Keston. `We are an official structure. Without such data we cannot say anything.' He referred all enquiries to the Interior Ministry and the Committee for State Security (KGB). `Spies are their affair.'

The duty operational officer at the Interior Ministry, who did not give his name, told Keston on 7 March that he personally had `no information' that any American spies were intent on creating or furthering religious conflict in Belarus, referring all enquiries to the KGB. `On questions of national security it is the KGB that is responsible.'

The duty officer at the KGB department of Minsk's central district declined to comment, referring all enquiries to KGB headquarters. `It is not our competence,' he told Keston on 7 March. `We are just a small division.' The switchboard at KGB headquarters was constantly engaged when Keston called on 6 and 7 March.

Kunstadter at the U.S. embassy rejected the charge of fomenting inter-religious conflict. In giving our assistance to Belarus we have acted fully within the framework of the 1996 bilateral agreement between our two governments,' he insisted, stressing that all such assistance was channelled to civil society groups such as non-governmental organisations, the independent press and economic development and humanitarian efforts. `The U.S. government does not get involved in supporting religious groups,' he reported, adding that `in addition, in accordance with U.S. law we do not fund political parties'.

Kunstadter went further than simply rejecting Zimovsky's claims that the U.S. was fomenting inter-religious tension. `If anyone has anything to say about fomenting religious tension, one should direct many questions to the Belarusian authorities regarding the situation of Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Protestant denominations and others - that's the real issue.' He pointed to the numerous violations of religious rights of these groups highlighted in the U.S. State Department human rights report on Belarus, issued two days before Zimovsky's broadcast.

Keston notes that the Belarusian government strongly favours the Belarusian Orthodox Church, the largest religious community in the country, and regards most other religious communities as subversive or potentially subversive. All religious activity is guided not only by restrictive published laws, but by a network of unpublished decrees and regulations that often override provisions of published law. The Catholic Church and Protestant churches have faced numerous obstructions to their work, including difficulties of regaining, buying or building places of worship, difficulties of inviting foreign clergy and church workers, and the ban on renting premises for religious services - rendering public worship services by churches that do not own their own facilities impossible.

Any accusation that a religious community was a tool of the CIA – or any other Western intelligence service - would be highly dangerous for such a community in today's authoritarian Belarus. (END)