BELARUS: Repressive Religion Bill Put Back to Autumn Again.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 1 July 2002

As the current session of parliament expired last Friday (28 June), supporters of the restrictive new religion law failed to have the text approved by the upper chamber of parliament, the Council of the Republic, despite a last minute rush. The lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Representatives, voted on 26 June to postpone holding the second reading, only to overturn the decision and to approve the bill in a controversial move the following day (see KNS 28 June 2002). "The bill was not placed on the agenda of the Council of the Republic on Friday, as it had only completed passage through the lower house at 8 pm the previous evening," Aleksandr Vertinsky of the Council of the Republic secretariat told Keston News Service from Minsk on 1 July. "Deputies did not have time to acquaint themselves with the text approved by the lower chamber."

Anatoli Novikov, an official of the upper chamber's Commission for Social Questions, which is now handling the bill, confirmed that it will now be considered in the autumn session, which begins on 2 October, "unless there is the need to call an extraordinary session". "There have been no such calls at present, but according to the constitution the president can call an extraordinary session if enough deputies demand it, though this is very rare," he told Keston from Minsk on 1 July.

Vladimir Lameka, deputy chairman of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, also confirmed to Keston by telephone from Minsk on 1 July that consideration of the law had now been put off to the autumn.

Novikov said that his commission had not yet had time to consider the bill, and would not do so until after parliament resumes in October, but might hold seminars about the issue over the summer break.

The Belarusian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate - the biggest denomination in Belarus with more than 1,200 registered parishes - continues to back the new draft unequivocally and is disappointed consideration of it has been put back to the autumn. "We hoped the law would be adopted in this session," spokesman for Metropolitan Filaret (Vakhromeyev), Andrei Petrashkevich, told Keston by telephone from Minsk on 1 July. "Unfortunately it wasn't." Although he said his Church had spoken up for the "urgent adoption" of the law many times, he stressed that he had no complaints against deputies of either chamber of parliament. "The deputies of the Council of the Republic decided they wanted to study the articles of the law in more detail. That is their right."

If signed by the president, 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. Leaders of four main Protestant communities, the Baptists, the Pentecostals, the Full Gospel Church and the Adventists, held a press conference on 28 June to repeat their concerns.

The four Protestant leaders, 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, wrote to President Aleksandr Lukashenko on 1 July to express their bewilderment at the hasty adoption of the bill by the lower house of parliament and to request a meeting to discuss continuing moves to adopt the law. "The impression is being created that someone wants to adopt this law - which would lead only to conflicts and disputes - without serious and balanced discussion and without taking into account the reality of the religious situation in our country."

Petrashkevich of the Orthodox Church declined to comment on the content of the bill, claiming that it had support from "all the traditional faiths, the Orthodox, the Catholics, the Lutherans, the Jews and the Muslims". He claimed that only the "neo-Protestants" and the "new religious movements" were unhappy with it. He referred all enquiries on the bill's content to Andrei Aleshko, legal advisor to Metropolitan Filaret. Keston was unable to reach Aleshko by telephone on 1 July.

Given that the new law, if adopted, would make it impossible for foreign citizens to head religious organisations, Keston asked Petrashkevich whether the Moscow-born Filaret was a Russian or Belarusian citizen. "He is an ethnic Russian, but I don't know about his citizenship - I've never asked him and I've never seen his passport," Petrashkevich responded, though he said that he believed he is a citizen of Belarus as he takes part in elections.

This provision in the draft law could also obstruct the emergence of the Armenian Church, which has not yet opened any places of worship in Belarus for the estimated 10,000 Armenians in the country. A spokesman for the Armenian embassy in Minsk told Keston on 26 June that ambassador Suren Harutyunyan is already in discussion over plans to build a church in the Belarusian capital. The spokesman said there is currently no resident priest, although some services have been held in Orthodox churches. No Armenian priests are believed to have Belarusian citizenship and any priest sent from Armenia to serve the church is likely to be an Armenian citizen, so if the new law is adopted the priest would not be eligible to lead the community. (END)