BELARUS: Last-Ditch Attempt to Influence Religion Bill

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 25 June 2002

Representatives of a range of minority faiths plan a small picket outside parliament tomorrow (26 June) as the Chamber of Representatives gives its second and final reading to a controversial religion bill. For the bill to become law after adoption by parliament, it must be signed by President Aleksandr Lukashenko before the end of the current parliamentary session on 28 June. "It is 98 per cent certain that parliament will adopt the law tomorrow and that the president will sign it into law this week," Aleksandr Velichko, spokesman for the Pentecostal Union, told Keston News Service from the Belarusian capital Minsk on 25 June.

If adopted, the new law would be the most repressive religion law in any former Soviet republic other than Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan. It would outlaw unregistered religious activity, introduce compulsory prior censorship for all religious literature; publishing, education and charitable activity would be restricted to faiths that had ten registered communities in 1982; there would be a ban on all but occasional, small religious meetings in private homes (see KNS 17 June and 28 May 2002). While Orthodox and Catholic representatives have broadly welcomed or accepted the bill, Protestants and leaders of minority faiths have sharply criticised it. Father Yan Spasyuk, leader of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which has been denied registration, was categorically opposed. "If the law is adopted, new religious groups that emerged since the fall of the Soviet Union will be annihilated," he told Keston on 25 June.

Velichko reported that at the picket outside parliament, an appeal against the bill signed by a range of religious leaders will be handed out and those present will request that some representatives will be allowed into the Chamber of Representatives to listen to the consideration of the bill, which he reckons will last at most three hours.

One deputy, Ivan Pashkevich, a member of the parliamentary human rights committee, submitted a detailed criticism of the bill to parliament on 18 June. He suggested excluding many of the most restrictive articles of the law, especially those concerning registration of religious organisations.

A newly-formed group, For Freedom of Conscience, which has been campaigning against the bill, complained on 22 June that the way the bill has been rushed through its readings has violated parliamentary procedure. "The majority of deputies have not seen the draft text of the law and will see it only on the eve [of the hearing]", the group complained.

Three parliamentary deputies, an official of the presidential office and another from the Council of Ministers joined representatives of 23 of the country's 27 recognised faiths at a meeting in Minsk organised by For Freedom of Conscience to discuss the bill on 24 June. "Nine of the faiths represented were categorically against the bill," Velichko reported, "including the Catholics, many Protestants, the Bahais, the Jews and the Hare Krishna community. A further ten or so - mostly small groups like the Old Believers, the Reformed Church and some Baptist denominations - said they would support it only if there were fundamental changes." He said only Andrei Aleshko, legal advisor to Metropolitan Filaret, Exarch of the Belarusian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate, fully endorsed the bill. "He said it was impossible to regard all religious faiths in Belarus as equal when the Orthodox represented 80 per cent of the population."

Despite Velichko's claims of Catholic opposition to the bill, Keston could find only one Catholic leader who would express his concern. "The restrictions of the Brezhnev era represent the principles behind the bill," Archimandrite Sergiusz Gajek, Apostolic Visitator for Belarus' Greek Catholic community, told Keston from Rome on 25 June. In particular, he regarded the preamble for the law giving a pre-eminent position to the Orthodox Church and recognising the importance of the Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish and Sunni Muslim communities as "unnecessary". He believed the protection of religious liberty for all faiths was fundamental, rather than each faith protecting its own position. "The law must be the same for all." He backed the protests planned outside parliament on 26 June. "It is good that there will be protests, not for their own sake, but because I believe people have the right to make their views known."

However, his objections to the bill were not echoed by other Catholic leaders. Father Vladislav Zavalnyuk, a prominent Minsk priest, declined to give Keston his views on the bill. Father Igor Lashuk, another Minsk priest, told Keston on 25 June that if the bill is adopted "there won't be serious problems for Catholics". He maintained that the bill had been improved in recent drafts and seemed unconcerned about restrictions that will affect other religious groups. "The Baptists and other Protestants have written terrible things against the Catholics. Should that be allowed?" The Catholic bishop of Vitebsk in the north east of the country, Vladislav Blin, told Keston on 25 June that he had written to Valery Lipkin, chairman of the parliamentary Commission on Human Rights, National Relations and Mass Media, which has been handling the bill. However, he declined to say what views he had expressed in the letter.

Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, the Vatican's nuncio in Minsk, likewise declined to make specific comments about the bill, although he declared that he had been "following the drafting with attention". He said the draft bill was "certainly very typical" of laws "in this part of the world", but would not say whether the Catholic Church in Belarus supported or opposed the bill's provisions. He said the Catholic Church had submitted "a long list of our observations" at various stages of preparation of the bill, adding that some of the observations had been taken on board. "We are looking to see if our work and existence can continue here as it has done over the past decade," he told Keston by telephone on 25 June. "There have not been too many negative experiences in the past ten years." Although he maintained that it was "very important for everyone" that standards are common, he stressed that responses to the bill varied from faith to faith. "Many have no objections, many have some objections and others are very uncomfortable. We are defending the status quo as far as we are concerned."

Father Spasyuk, who reported that his Church has 70 parishes with 35 priests, told Keston from the village of Pogranichny on Belarus' western border with Poland that the bill had been drawn up with the backing of the Moscow Patriarchate's branch in Belarus. "The old law satisfied the needs of believers," he declared. He maintained that if adopted, the new law would make life difficult not only for the Autocephalous Church, but for the Catholics - whose foreign priests would face difficulties working in the country - and Protestants - the majority of whose communities would be stripped of registration. "Prayer will become equal to a protest or a political act," he declared, referring to new restrictions in the bill on public religious events. Father Spasyuk said his Church would send representatives to the protest outside parliament.

Another community that has been denied registration, the Ahmaddiya community, is also concerned. The community has fewer than 50 adherents in the country and meets for prayers in the home of its leader, Shahid Kahloon, a Pakistani student, in Minsk and in rented premises in Grodno. Kahloon told Keston from Minsk on 25 June that his community has already experienced pressure from the KGB, which summoned him last summer and instructed him not to invite anyone to prayers who was not already a member of the community. Even such private prayers will be outlawed under the new law.

Although the bill requires compulsory re-registration for all religious communities within the two years following its adoption, its effect will immediately be felt, as elements of a religious community's statutes that contradict the law will be deemed invalid immediately. (END)