BELARUS: Orthodox Given Preeminence in New Religion Bill.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 17 June 2002

The draft of the religion bill approved by the lower house of the Belarusian parliament on 31 May, of which Keston News Service has received a copy, now includes a provision specifically recognising the Orthodox Church as having a pre-eminent role. The provision - added by deputies during parliamentary consideration - recognises "the determining role of the Orthodox Church in the historical set-up and the development of the spiritual, cultural and state traditions of the Belarusian nation". In lower categories it also recognises the "spiritual, cultural and historical role" of the Catholic Church, as well as the "inalienability from the general history of the nation" of the Lutheran Church, "Orthodox Judaism" and Sunni Islam. Although the Orthodox Church is by far the largest single denomination in Belarus, religious minority leaders have expressed their concern to Keston that this provision - although not part of the main law - could lead to even closer ties between the Orthodox Church and the state to the detriment of minority faiths.

Leaders of four main Protestant denominations, the Baptist Union, the Pentecostal Union, the Full Gospel Association and the Adventist Church, complained in a joint 7 June statement about what they regarded as the "especially privileged position of the Russian Orthodox Church" in the current version of the law. "At present a range of political figures are actively promoting the need to strengthen the legal recognition of a determining role of the Orthodox Church in the historical set-up and development of spiritual, cultural and state traditions of the Belarusian nation," the four denominations wrote in a letter to President Aleksandr Lukashenko. "In this it should not be forgotten that from the fifteenth century on, Protestantism has exerted an active influence on all spheres of life of the Belarusian nation."

Ivan Pashkevich, a parliamentary deputy and member of its human rights commission, said he was worried that the pre-eminent place accorded the Orthodox Church could crowd out other faiths. "Article 8 of the draft bases the state's relations with individual denominations on 'their influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural and state traditions of the Belarusian nation'. This means the Orthodox will gain a huge advantage," he told Keston by telephone from Minsk on 14 June.

Another change made by deputies on 31 May was to increase the number of years that ten religious congregations have to have functioned before they can found a higher body ("religious association") from fifteen to twenty years. This therefore requires that religious groups have to have had ten registered religious congregations in 1982, at the height of Soviet restrictions on religion, not in 1987, when such controls were slowly beginning to ease. It appears that only the Orthodox, the Catholics and the main Jewish organisation will thus be able to gain re-registration for their hierarchical bodies.

"The draft law would ban all but higher religious organisations from publishing or importing religious literature or newspapers, running schools or educational activity, founding missions or maintaining charitable funds," Pashkevich declared.

Nina Shavtsova, a Minsk-based lawyer who has been involved in religious liberty issues, expressed concern about a new provision inserted by deputies in Article 25, that allows religious rituals in private homes if necessary "provided they are not of a mass or systematic nature". She told Keston from Minsk on 4 June that she fears this article could be used to restrict individuals' religious rights.

Pashkevich points out that once adopted, re-registration will be obligatory under a process to last two years. However, he stresses that immediately on the law's adoption religious organisations will only be able to conduct activities that are not against the new law, regardless of what their current statutes allow. "This will apply from day one after the adoption of the law," he warns. "Hundreds of religious organisations won't get re-registration and will immediately be declared outside the law. Local officials will immediately come to them and say: 'You can't do this, you can't do that.'" (END)