BELARUS: Religion Law Goes to Parliament.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 28 May 2002

"Amendments to Belarus' law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations will be discussed by the Chamber of Representatives on 31 May," an official of the human rights commission of the Chamber (the lower house of the Belarusian parliament) told Keston News Service from Minsk on 28 May. "The first reading will cover the concept behind the law - that all religions are equal - while the second reading will cover the individual amendments." Leonid Zemlyakov, deputy head of the Chamber's secretariat, told Keston on 27 May that no date had been set then, but expected it to be soon. "The draft law is on the agenda for the fourth session, and this finishes at the end of June." He declined to make a copy of the latest draft available to Keston, saying that the text was still being worked on (though the website has what officials have told Keston is the version the government sent to parliament earlier this year). The long-running process to amend the religion law for a third time - it was originally adopted in December 1992 and amended in 1995 and 1999 - has been conducted in some secrecy and some confusion, religious and human rights representatives have told Keston. "We get the impression that the religious affairs committee and the parliamentary apparatus want to limit access as far as possible to the current draft of the text," Oleg Gulak of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee in Minsk told Keston on 22 May.

The draft law was due to have been considered in parliament on 3 April, but was withdrawn from the agenda, apparently as a group of deputies wanted to change the text of the draft. A government roundtable discussion on the draft due to have been held in May did not take place.

A separate roundtable organised by the Council of Europe in Minsk on 29 April - which discussed international norms on religious freedom but inevitably touched on the draft law - was boycotted by government agencies, although some judges and parliamentary deputies took part. "The seminar showed the gulf that exists between local bureaucrats and European standards," declared Gulak, who attended the event. "Europeans base themselves on the individual right to confess any faith or none, while our bureaucrats base themselves on securing state interests - which are interpreted very widely." Malcolm Evans, professor of international law at Bristol University in England, who was one of the two Council of Europe experts at the seminar, told Keston on 27 May that participants in the seminar were "pessimistic" about the draft. "They believed it was a done deal which could be put through parliament very quickly. They felt very vulnerable."

Government officials have hinted that they wish to stem the rise in the number of registered religious organisations. The Minsk paper Naviny noted on 21 May that official figures put the number of registered organisations in the country at more than 2,500. "The proportion of Orthodox communities fell from 52 per cent in 1988 to 44 per cent in 2001, while the Catholics fell from 15.7 per cent to 15.5 per cent," it reported. "Yet the proportion of Protestant communities grew from 29 to 36 per cent. The president of Belarus maintains that in numerical terms 80 per cent of believers are Orthodox."

Asked why a new religion law was necessary, Stanislav Buko, the chairman of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, appeared unable to give a definitive answer. "The old law was adopted in 1992 and life has moved on," he told Keston by telephone on 22 May. "There have been significant changes in social and religious life." However, he was unable to say why such changes necessitated a new law. Asked who or which agency had initiated the process of changing the law, he likewise was unable to say, although he denied that the impetus had come from President Aleksandr Lukashenko. "The president doesn't concern himself with these issues," he declared. But he insisted the new draft had been drawn up "in a democratic framework". "Our democratic principles are unchanged." The parliamentary human rights commission official, who declined to give his name, told Keston the Council of Ministers had initiated the process.

Other commentators have told Keston that the State Committee under its previous chairman, Aleksandr Bilyk, was the initiator of the new law, hoping thereby to increase its power within the bureaucracy. "The State Committee has taken the most active part in the process," Gulak told Keston.

Marina Shirokova of the department of state legislation of the National Centre for Draft Legislative Activity attached to the President said that her centre had drawn up the text but had handed it over to the Council of Ministers last September. "The Council of Ministers then worked on the text and brought in specialists from the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs," she told Keston by telephone from Minsk on 27 May.

Zemlyakov and Buko reported that the draft text was sent last December to the 26 registered religious denominations in Belarus for their comments. Zemlyakov said they had provided 150 suggestions and recommendations. Asked how the various denominations had responded to the proposed new law, Buko would say only that "no-one was against the draft," although he said several had suggestions over individual provisions.

However, Vassily Kislyak, secretary of the Baha'i Spiritual Assembly, told Keston from Minsk on 27 May that his denomination had written to the government and parliament on 15 February to point out its objections to the draft law. "There is no feedback from the government to our remarks on the bill," he complained, adding that local authorities already ban many Baha'i local activities.

Gulak of the Helsinki Committee told Keston that he had seen an analysis of the suggestions made by religious denominations about the draft. "Only some remarks by the Orthodox Church were incorporated," he told Keston. "No suggestions by any of the other faiths were included."

Poor relations between the Belarusian government and international bodies - such as the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe - have meant that the government has failed to take up offers of assistance in helping the proposed new law meet international standards. "I haven't seen any comments on the draft from international bodies," the human rights commission official told Keston. "But our experts say the draft meets international norms." (END)