BELARUS: Europe's Most Repressive Religion Law Goes to Final Vote.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 1 October 2002

Amendments to Belarus' religion law which if adopted will make it the most repressive in Europe go for final approval tomorrow (2 October) in the upper chamber of Belarus' parliament, the Council of the Republic. "The new autumn session begins at 10 am tomorrow morning and the religion law is the first substantive item on the agenda," Council of the Republic spokesperson Aleksandr Kryzhanovsky told Keston News Service from the Belarusian capital Minsk on 1 October. He said the debate and voting on the draft could be over within two hours. "I can't say if the senators will adopt the law or not: they have differing views of it," Kryzhanovsky told Keston. "Some think it is right and will support it. Others think it is inadequate."

Kryzhanovsky explained that if the chamber adopts the law it then goes to President Aleksandr Lukashenko for signature. He has three days to sign it into law, otherwise it goes back to the lower chamber of parliament. If the upper chamber rejects the law it likewise goes back to the lower chamber.

If signed by the president, the new law would outlaw unregistered religious activity, require compulsory prior censorship for all religious literature; ban foreign citizens from leading religious organisations; publishing and education would be restricted to faiths that have ten registered communities, including at least one that had registration in 1982; and there would be a ban on all but occasional, small religious meetings in private homes.

Kryzhanovsky reported that the draft law had brought "many hundreds" of letters flooding in. "The absolute majority back the law," he claimed. The Russian Orthodox Church's exarchate in Belarus has strongly backed the draft law and pressured deputies of the lower house to adopt it in June (see KNS 1 July 2002).

The Belarusian authorities have declined to consult the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on the draft. "When this draft law was published we offered the relevant Belarusian authorities our assistance and that of the ODIHR's Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief," ODIHR spokesperson Jens-Hagen Eschenbaecher told Keston from Warsaw on 1 October. "However, this offer was not taken up."

However, a 28 September analysis of the draft law - prepared for the OSCE by Professor Cole Durham, a member of the ODIHR Advisory Panel, Melinda Porter, and Brian Gross of the Brigham Young University International Center for Law and Religion Studies - criticised a whole series of provisions of the draft law, especially what it termed "burdensome registration requirements". It called for work on the draft to be halted until its "defects" had been removed.

Oleg Gulak, head of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, told Keston from Minsk on 1 October that he had reached agreement in Warsaw in September with Michael McNamara, human rights officer at the ODIHR, that the OSCE would be prepared to send specialists on international standards on freedom of religion to a seminar for parliamentarians to be organised by the Helsinki Committee in Minsk, but that the chairman of the Council of the Republic had written back on 27 September declining the offer.

"We would obviously be concerned if any participating State adopts a law which did not comply with OSCE commitments," Eschenbaecher told Keston. (END)