BELARUS: New Religion Laws Postponed until September.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 24 April 2001

Despite earlier reports that a new and more restrictive version of the religion law would be debated in parliament in the spring, the Belarusian government has declared that the draft text will not now go to parliament until September, Keston News Service has learnt. Work continues on the draft in secret, with the government refusing to make texts of any drafts available to local religious groups, Keston or to the diplomatic community based in the Belarusian capital Minsk until the text has been `finalised'.

The postponement was reported in a letter of 10 April from G. V. Bochkova, first deputy director of the National Legislative Centre under the Presidential Administration, of which Keston has received a copy. Bochkova declares that `the introduction of the draft law into the House of Representatives of the National Assembly has been postponed until September 2001'.

Bochkova reports that the text has not yet been finalised, adding that `a series of provisions demand additional agreement with interested parties', though which agencies or groups represent `interested parties' is not stated. Making available the text `at this stage of preparation' is therefore `inexpedient'.

`In our view it would be justified to present the final version of the draft law later, at the completed stage of its drafting after agreement with all interested parties,' the letter concludes.

Belarus initially adopted the law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations on 17 December 1992, a year after the country gained independence. However, the law was subsequently amended and a host of other published and secret decrees and regulations steadily eroded religious liberty.

Although a draft text of the new religion law was leaked to the newspaper Lichnost last year, officials have repeatedly refused to make texts available. Ivan Yanovich, deputy chairman of the government's Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, refused to give Keston a copy of the current draft in late March. Oleg Gulak, chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee told Keston in early April 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 (see KNS 6 April 2001).

Believers of many faiths fear that the revised law will make public activity by non-favoured religious groups even more difficult. (END)