BELARUS: Restrictive Religion Bill Postponed

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 26 June 2002

Just three days before the end of the parliamentary session, deputies in the Chamber of Representatives have postponed consideration of a highly restrictive new law on religion which would have given Belarus the third most restrictive legislative framework for religious communities of all the former Soviet republics after Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Representatives of minority faiths had told Keston News Service ahead of the scheduled consideration of the bill today (26 June) that they believed it inevitable that the bill would be rushed through parliament and signed into law by President Aleksandr Lukashenko this week (see KNS 25 June 2002).

Pentecostal spokesman Aleksandr Velichko, who was present in parliament for the hearings, told Keston that during the morning session Valery Lipkin, chairman of the parliamentary human rights commission which had been handling the bill, presented the text to deputies for the second reading. However, after this, deputies started discussing the appeal signed by 69 religious and NGO leaders calling on deputies not to approve the law, which had been handed to every deputy as they arrived at parliament. As deputies called for consideration of the bill to be postponed until the autumn session, which begins on 2 October, the speaker Vadim Popov repeatedly urged deputies to consider the bill in the current session, which ends on 28 June. However, in four votes – over whether to discuss the bill today, on 27 June or 28 June – he was defeated by a margin of 60 votes to 43. Popov then told parliament the bill would be considered in the autumn.

A former head of the Belarusian KGB, parliamentary deputy Vladimir Yegorov, told deputies of a report prepared by specialists in conflict studies at the agency acknowledging the potential consequences of passing the bill. "Approving this law would lead to unhappiness among Protestants that would develop into actions of protest," he said. He recommended substantial changes before the law is adopted.

The decision to postpone consideration of the bill was hailed by a range of minority religious leaders. “This is very good news. We’re very pleased,” Bishop Nikolai Sinkovets, head of the Baptist Union, which has 270 registered congregations, told Keston by telephone from Minsk in the wake of the decision. “We thank God that parliament has taken a sensible decision.” He noted that all the Protestant churches had expressed their concerns about the bill and had held a weekend of prayer and fasting earlier this month that the bill not be adopted. He said his Church remains prepared to discuss the draft bill and hopes to be able to express its concerns. “We constantly ask the government and parliament to allow us to join an open discussion. They have never offered us this.”

Bishop Leonid Tsvitsky, head of the Lutheran Church, which has ten registered parishes, also welcomed the postponement. “If there are questions about the bill which believers are not happy about it is better to postpone consideration,” he told Keston from Vitebsk. “It is just.” He said he believes it would be good to have a public discussion of the draft.

Archimandrite Sergiusz Gajek, Apostolic Visitator for Belarus' Greek Catholic community, which numbers 14 registered parishes and a further half dozen without registration. “I thank God and those who worked for this.” he told Keston from Rome on 25 June. “I welcome the fact that the law was not adopted, because it clearly would have restricted the rights of minorities, including the Protestants and the Greek Catholics, who have both been present in Belarus for hundreds of years. Limiting freedom of religious confession is of no use to anyone, not the state, nor even the Orthodox Church.” He believed the postponement would now allow a calm debate on the bill, taking into account the unhappiness of the Protestant churches and others. He believed the draft bill should now be amended to ensure parity for all faiths before the law. “The new law must be truly democratic, in accordance with the tradition of tolerance going back centuries in Belarus.”

On 25 June, the United States embassy in Minsk had issued a statement calling for deputies not to adopt the bill. It said that it had gained the impression that the bill was aimed at obstructing the work of groups the government regarded as “non-traditional” and that it violated Belarus’ international human rights and religious freedom commitments. (END)