BELARUS: Deadline Looms over Juridical Address Changes.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 6 April 2001

Religious organisations whose juridical address is a private flat have until 1 June to find an alternative juridical address and gain re-registration if they want to avoid losing their legal status. The deputy chairman of the government's Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, Ivan Yanovich, told Keston News Service from Minsk that those who fail to gain re-registration by the deadline also risk being fined under the Administrative Code. He dismissed suggestions that this change would obstruct the functioning of religious communities. `It is not a problem for religious groups to find a juridical address,' he claimed. However, Oleg Gulak, acting chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, told Keston that the move was part of a targeted campaign. `It is a hidden form of pressure on new religious groups, above all Protestants, in defence of the Orthodox Church.'

The compulsory deregistration of organisations registered at juridical addresses in private flats - which affects commercial, social and religious organisations - followed changes to the Housing Code in 1999, although for religious organisations the move is only now taking effect. `Social organisations were affected first,' Gulak told Keston by telephone from Minsk on 6 April. `Late last year officials began making complaints against religious organisations registered at private flats.'

Speaking to Keston on 26 March, Yanovich said that more than 3,000 religious organisations - ranging from individual communities to central bodies, monasteries and religious charities - currently have registration in the country. He was unable to say, however, what proportion of the 3,000 currently have registration at juridical addresses in private flats, although it was common in the 1990s, he said, for religious organisations to be registered at such addresses. He claimed that religious organisations registered at private addresses that have a separate entrance in a block of flats or at private detached houses are not required to reregister.

Gulak did not know either how many of the 3,000 registered religious groups were affected by the move, but believed `more than half' might have registration at private addresses. He pointed out that by contrast, the Orthodox Church had no such problems. `All their communities have registration and their own buildings. Even new Orthodox churches have no problems getting registration.' He rejected Yanovich's claims that religious organisations would be able to find alternative juridical addresses without problems. `There is almost no private property in Belarus. The state has strong control.'

Gulak believed the change to the housing code was part of a coordinated campaign against religious groups the government does not like. This also included Decree No. 36, signed by President Aleksandr Lukashenko last year, which required permission from local authorities each time a religious organisation wished to hold a religious meeting or service in a property not designed for religious use. `This has affected almost all religious groups that rented cinemas, houses of culture or other such property for services.' Many Protestant churches without their own buildings have had to halt public services.

Asked why the change in the housing code was instituted, Yanovich said there were `various reasons' but he could not speak on behalf of parliament. `I can only imagine it might have been for sanitary reasons or, because many people come to such organisations, neighbours might complain.' However, he admitted that his committee had not received or heard of any complaints from people living next to addresses in private flats of religious organisations. `Our committee does not have such complaints, but maybe this is because ours is a republic-wide body and complaints might have gone to local branches of the religious affairs administration.'

Asked whether this change to the rules did not restrict religious freedom, Yanovich laughed. `Each country has its own rules.' He stressed that the rule applies not just to religious organisations but to social and commercial organisations too. `These restrictions apply to all, not just to religious organisations.' Asked whether fines would not be seen as an attack on religious liberty he responded that organisations would be fined, not individual believers. `No-one has been fined yet,' he stressed.

In addition to the changes to the housing code and the de facto ban on religious meetings outside dedicated religious premises, Belarus is also planning to amend the country's religion law. Although a draft text was leaked to the newspaper Lichnost last year, the current draft is being worked out in secrecy. Yanovich refused to give Keston a copy of the current draft. Gulak told Keston that when he and his colleagues met members of the parliamentary commission in human rights on 5 April they were told that the text would not be made public until it is discussed at the next session of parliament, due to convene in the spring. Believers of many faiths fear that the revised law will make public activity by non-favoured religious groups even more difficult. (END)