BELARUS: Religious Censorship And Compulsory Re-Registration Under the New Law.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 28 May 2002

Unregistered religious activity will be banned, foreigners will be prevented from leading religious organisations, religious literature will be subjected to prior compulsory censorship and religious groups with fewer than 20 adult citizen members in any one location will be denied the possibility of registering, if new proposals to amend the religion law which begin their passage through parliament this week go through unchanged. Members of several faiths in Belarus, as well as local human rights activists, have told Keston News Service of their concerns over the proposed amendments. "All religious groups are watching and waiting for this religious law," Aleksandr Velichko of the Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals) told Keston from Minsk on 27 May. "If it is adopted there will be serious problems." Although the text of the latest version of the draft has not been made public (see separate KNS article), it seems likely that when it reaches the lower house of parliament further restrictions will have been introduced.

The Russian-language text of the draft sent by the government to parliament earlier this year, which has been placed on the website of the government's National Centre for Legal Information (www.ncpi.gov.by), contains provisions to introduce compulsory advance religious censorship, a ban on unregistered religious activity, a raising of the threshold from 10 to 20 members for a local religious community to be able to operate and territorial restrictions on the functioning of religious groups. Once adopted, the law will require compulsory re-registration over the following two years, the third round of re-registration since Belarus became independent.

In what is the most serious violation of international religious liberty norms, Article 17 of the draft declares: "Religious organisations are subject to compulsory state registration." The 1992 religion law laid down no requirement that religious organisations must register in order to be allowed to function, and of the other former Soviet republics only Uzbekistan specifically bans unregistered religious activity. However, in recent years the tighter controls over religious activity in Belarus have come close to introducing compulsory registration by the back door.

"If this provision is introduced it will mean the return of persecution - our believers will go to prison again for their faith. People are prepared for this," declared Klaus Karsten, director of the German-based Friedensstimme mission, which maintains close ties with congregations in Belarus of the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, which reject registration on principle. He told Keston on 28 May that earlier in May the chairman of the local administration in the village of Rogozna, 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Brest close to the border with Poland, had summoned the entire church to question why they refused to register. "The whole church rejected registration," Karsten reported. "It is the unanimous understanding of all our believers throughout the former Soviet republics that we do not want registration." Two religious liberty specialists from Moscow, Anatoly Pchelintsev and Vladimir Ryakhovsky from the Institute for Religion and Law, agreed. "Given the low level of legal and religious cultural knowledge of officials in the whole post-Soviet territory, such a provision could provoke mass violations of the rights of believers," they wrote last November in an analysis of an earlier draft containing the same provision. They pointed out that such a provision violated international commitments that religious communities have the right to select their own leadership freely.

Article 14 of the draft increases the minimum number of founders of a "religious community" (a local religious organisation) from the current 10 to 20 Belarusian adult citizens, and requires the 20 to come from one town or "a few neighbouring settlements". The Baptists and the Baha'is have already expressed their concern about the raising of the threshold, which Velichko warns will make illegal many smaller religious groups based in small villages, especially given the new ban on unregistered religious activity. Karsten pointed out that this would prevent any new religious community from emerging. "All new churches begin small." The Baha'is are also concerned that only citizens will be allowed to found such religious groups, a concern shared by the lawyers Sergei and Dina Shavtsov of the Minsk law firm Imperative, who have represented the Full Gospel Pentecostal Church.

The draft identifies a separate, higher level of religious organisation, a "religious association", which may function on a national level. Under Article 15, an association will require no fewer than ten religious communities "of the same religious confession" which have been functioning in Belarus for at least fifteen years (i.e. since 1987, just before tight Soviet controls on religion began to be lifted). This will bar many religious faiths which had only a limited number of registered communities during the late Soviet period from forming religious associations. Article 15 also distinguishes between "republican" religious associations - which need to have functioning communities in the "majority" of the country's regions (presumably at least four of the seven regions) - and "local" religious associations that cannot meet that requirement.

Article 16 declares that "religious associations" have the right to create monastic communities, brotherhoods and sisterhoods, charitable organisations and educational establishments. Although this is not spelled out, it appears that "religious communities" will not have this right.

The Shavtsovs question provisions in the draft limiting religious organisations' activity to defined areas of the country. "This norm is not in accordance with provisions of civil law, which does not contain territorial limitations on the activity of juridical entities," they declared.

Article 13 of the draft requires the leaders of all religious organisations to be citizens of Belarus. This requirement has already been opposed by the Baha'is. It will also create problems for the Catholic Church, the second largest faith in Belarus with more than 430 parishes, most of whose 285 priests are foreign citizens. "It is difficult to conceive that such a provision could appear in the laws of any state with advanced democratic institutions," declared Pchelintsev and Ryakhovsky. "An analogous position would mean Orthodox priests would be forced to leave many states."

The new draft for the first time introduces tight controls over religious publications, including advance, compulsory censorship of religious literature. Article 27 declares: "Religious organisations may import or distribute religious literature, printed, audio and video materials only after the conducting of a religious expert assessment." Such an assessment would be carried out by the newly-created expert council attached to the State Committee. However, only religious organisations may found commercial entities to produce "divine service literature" and "items of cult significance", presumably a provision to protect Orthodox and Catholic manufacturers. Although commercial publishers unconnected to religious organisations do not appear to be deprived of the right to produce religious literature (provided it is not divine service literature), religious literature may only be distributed on premises legally used by religious organisations or "in places assigned for these purposes according to the established procedure by local executive and order-bringing (rasporyaditelnie) organs". Presumably this provision prevents ordinary bookshops selling religious books.

The Shavtsovs question the requirement in Article 18 that religious groups new to Belarus must submit with their registration application information about "the foundations of their faith" and "their cult practice", including details of their history and attitude to the family and medical treatment. They fear that officials who may not like such groups will be able to find reasons not to register them.

Believers of a variety of faiths told Keston that they were concerned at the imprecise phraseology over who had the power to initiate a suit to liquidate a religious organisation through the courts, the wide powers granted to the expert council established by the State Committee and the complicated registration rules which, they believe, leave the way open for officials to deny registration to those they do not like. The Shavtsovs were concerned that there was no mechanism for religious groups to challenge assessments made by the expert council, even though they could lead to denial or removal of registration.

Rumours have circulated that the preamble of the law - which in the version produced by the government refers to the "influence" of religious organisations on the "formation of the spiritual, cultural and state traditions of the Belarusian nation" - has been or will be changed to refer specifically to Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Judaism and Lutheranism. Officials have so far denied this, but many Protestants have told Keston that the possibility worries them, especially as it would contradict Article 6 of the draft, which declares: "Religions and faiths are equal before the law." Despite this provision, the official of the human rights commission told Keston bluntly that the state "respects the historical faiths" and would do its utmost to protect them from "new destructive sects", among which he included the Hare Krishna community. "I believe - and this is my personal view - that at the current stage of Belarus' development it is justified to have such limitations on such groups," he declared. "The citizen has the right to choose a faith, but all these groups have been brought in by foreigners. They are not the desire of our citizens."

"The ban on unregistered religious activity, the requirement for 20 founding members of a religious organisation and the very difficult registration process, as well as many other provisions, clearly violate the constitution and international human rights standards," Oleg Gulak of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee told Keston from Minsk on 22 May. (END)