BELARUS: Protestants Fast and Pray Against Religion Bill.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 17 June 2002

Leaders of four of the major Protestant denominations in Belarus have called their members to pray and fast this weekend (15 and 16 June) against the adoption of a restrictive new religion bill approved by the lower house of parliament in its first reading on 31 May. "We call for prayers to be raised during June at every service and for 15 and 16 June to be declared days of fasting and prayer against the adoption in its second reading of the law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations," declared a 7 June statement from the Minsk-based Freedom of Conscience information centre received by Keston News Service. Concerns about the latest version of the draft law were echoed by Bishop Leonid Tsvitsky, head of the Lutheran Church in Belarus, told Keston from Vitebsk on 14 June. "It shouldn't be adopted and I hope it won't."

"If this law passes its second reading and is signed by the country's president, many of our congregations will run up against great difficulties in passing the obligatory re-registration," complained the leaders of the four denominations, Bishop Nikolai Sinkovets of the Baptist Union, Bishop Sergei Khomich of the Pentecostal Union, Aleksandr Sakovich of the Full Gospel Association and Moisei Ostrovsky of the Adventist Church. "This law does not meet international norms in the area of freedom of conscience and religion, in particular Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as Article 31 of the Constitution of Belarus."

Such an assessment is shared by Ivan Pashkevich, a parliamentary deputy and member of its human rights commission. "This draft law is anti-constitutional," he told Keston from Minsk on 14 June. "It violates several articles of the Constitution. If it is adopted, it will weigh heavily on Catholic, Protestant and Jewish congregations." He pointed out that small village congregations which cannot muster the required twenty members to gain or retain registration will be declared illegal. He highlighted the position of small Jewish communities in villages, many of whose members have left in recent years for Israel. "This would represent a ban on their activity."

Bishop Tsvitsky complained about the provision that ten communities that have been registered for twenty years are required in order to found a higher religious body. "If the law is adopted, our association would disappear," he complained. "Our church was practically destroyed under the Soviet regime and we are still trying to rebuild it." He said that of the ten registered Lutheran parishes, some were registered in the early 1990s and many in the past few years.

He also highlighted the requirement that all religious literature produced or imported will require prior expert assessment before it can be distributed. "Isn't that censorship?" he asked. (However, as a group that will lose registered status for its higher body, the Lutherans will not be allowed to publish or import religious literature at all if the law goes through.) The four Protestant organisations and Pashkevich all agreed with Bishop Tsvitsky that the "expert assessment" represented censorship.

Pashkevich said the impetus for a new law on religion came from a group of "extreme left politicians", mainly communists, with the collaboration of the Orthodox Church. "The Communists can't speak up now against religion," he declared. "But their principle remains that religion is evil and they try to minimise its activity. They are trying not to show they are against God." He said that of Belarus' 27 registered denominations, all except for the Orthodox Church oppose the new law.

Many minority faiths and human rights activists fear the law could be adopted at this parliamentary session, which finishes at the end of June. One source close to parliament, who declined to be named, told Keston that the "mood of the deputies" is to adopt the law at this session. Pashkevich was not sure that this mood would prevail. "Radical circles are doing all they can to hurry the law through at this session," he reported. He said an attempt was made to hold the second reading on 18 June, but that failed. He said the only remaining days on which it could be discussed are 26, 27 or 28 June, but he hoped to have consideration postponed until the autumn session, which begins in October.

Pavel Yadlovsky, a Jehovah's Witness leader in Minsk, reported that the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs had told him in early June that the law would not be adopted before the autumn. He said the Jehovah's Witnesses - who have 26 registered communities in Belarus and an umbrella body registered in 1997 - are still looking at the text of the draft law. "We are still going through it with our lawyers," he told Keston on 14 June. (END)