BELARUS: 'Traditional Faiths' v. The Rest Over Repressive Religion Law?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 1 October 2002

Strong endorsement for the repressive new religion law that goes for the final vote tomorrow (2 October) in the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament (see separate KNS article) has come from the leader of the Moscow Patriarchate's exarchate in Belarus, while the Roman Catholic Church, the Muslim community and some parts of the Jewish and Lutheran communities have supported the draft to differing extents. In an extensive survey of opinion by Keston News Service, all other faiths have expressed serious concern about provisions in the draft law that will ban all unregistered religious activity, ban all but the oldest religious communities from importing or publishing religious literature, maintaining religious colleges and inviting foreigners to serve in Belarus. Such concern has been echoed by a range of human rights groups.

"The Orthodox Church regards the draft of the new law completely positively," Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk, the leader of the Moscow Patriarchate's exarchate, told the Russian news agency Blagovest-info on 26 September. "There is nothing undemocratic about the preamble of the law which is causing the fight," he added in reference to the preamble's recognition of the Orthodox Church's "determining role" in Belarusian history and lower-level recognition of the Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish and Muslim faiths.

The chairman of the government's Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, Stanislav Buko, dismissed Protestant fears of the new law in an Itar-Tass interview on 22 September. He declared that the preamble to the law had no "normative force".

Metropolitan Filaret accused unnamed deputies of the lower chamber of parliament who had opposed the law as adopting a "highly one-sided" interpretation. He also dismissed Protestant concerns. "All this fuss is caused by fears that Belarus will unite with Russia, and thus establish a pattern for other former Soviet republics to follow."

All the other faiths Keston has contacted since parliament began consideration of the draft law earlier this year - including the Greek Catholics, the Pentecostal Union, the Full Gospel Church, the Adventists, the Baptist Union, the Baptist Council of Churches, the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, the Reform Jews, the Hare Krishna community, the Hindu community, the Baha'is and the Ahmadis - have been hostile to many of its provisions. Two ad hoc groups have been set up to defend religious freedom and campaign against the law.

"Our position is that we are against the new law. We don't accept a law that allows us or bans us from serving God," Pyotr Peters, a member of the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists told Keston from Moscow on 1 October. The Council of Churches - which has some 3,000 adult baptised members in Belarus - rejects state registration on principle in all the post-Soviet republics where it has congregations. "We're obliged not to accept any restrictions. Jesus told us to go into the whole world to preach. We can't ask where we are allowed to do so and where not. We're obliged to carry this out." He added that their congregations would not stop meeting for worship and their members would not stop bringing up their children "in a Christian spirit". "We're going to do so whether we are allowed or not."

Peters said church members have already presented their views in person to officials of the government's Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs in Minsk and written to many officials. "We don't hide our view. Our brothers have written appeals to the government, parliament and the president."

Even Yuri Dorn, head of the Jewish Religious Association which "broadly supports" the draft, was concerned about some of the provisions. "The law doesn't limit the rights of Belarus' Orthodox Jewish community," he told Keston from Minsk on 1 October. "But we are unhappy that it does not include any provision for the return of confiscated religious buildings, the return of items now in museums confiscated from synagogues and the provision that requires 20 adult members to form a religious community, rather than ten in the old law."

He said that of the 19 registered Orthodox Jewish communities, two were likely to lose state registration because of this provision. "We'll find a solution to this," he declared optimistically. "I don't think they will be made illegal, but if they are we will buy a minibus and transport our people to the nearest registered synagogue." Dorn believed the government would be unlikely to act against unregistered Jewish services. "I don't think they'd intervene if Jews want to meet in my flat," he declared.

Oleg Gulak, head of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, condemned the text of the draft. "The lawmakers keep talking about the necessity of defending state interests and the interests of the traditional faiths," he told Keston from Minsk on 1 October. "They are not interested in protecting the rights of believers to meet for worship but in protecting state security. They don't understand that this law will if adopted drive many religious communities into the underground and this will be more dangerous for national security."

He complained that leaders of minority faiths were barred from attending a round table organised by Anatoli Novikov, chairman of the upper chamber's Commission for Social Questions, on 1 October. "I had great difficulty getting in myself." He said almost all the speakers, both officials and religious leaders of the five "traditional faiths", had defended the draft. "The only open critic was lower house deputy Ivan Pashkevich." He said his committee had tried to give out material criticising the draft.

Gulak reported that during the meeting he had asked Stanislav Buko, chairman of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, what was wrong with the 1992 religion law which, in amended form, remains in force. "He complained that it didn't protect Belarus from destructive sects," Gulak reported. "I asked him which 'destructive sects' had gained registration under the old law and he had to admit that none had. I also asked him if the ban on unregistered religious activity did not contradict believers' rights. He responded that this was not a problem for the traditional faiths, only for the Charismatics, Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses." Gulak also reported that Buko had declared that once the law is adopted, religious meetings in private homes will only be allowed to take place if they are not "systematic" and not "of mass character".

The independent Belarusian Association of Journalists is concerned about "additional restrictions on the freedom of expression" the law would bring in if adopted. "The additional restrictive provisions for founders of media organisations it would introduce are in violation of the current press law," the association's spokesperson Ilona Urbanovich-Sauka told Keston from Minsk on 1 October. "In other words, it stipulates that only major religious associations have the right to found their own periodical publications (newspapers/magazines). Secondly, all religious literature and audio/video materials imported into Belarus will be subjected to expertise (censorship) to be conducted by the Expert Council at the State Committee for Religions, a government agency."

Human rights activists in Moscow have also voiced concern. Lev Ponomarev of the Russian Movement For Human Rights, and Father Gleb Yakunin of the Committee to Defend Freedom of Conscience wrote to Belarusian parliamentarians on 5 September to urge them not to adopt the draft law which, they maintained, would violate the rights of believers of all faiths.

On 22 September four of the biggest Protestant groups, the Baptist Union, the Pentecostal Union, the Full Gospel Association and the Adventist Church, whose leaders have been coordinating their campaign against the new religion law, held a joint "day of prayer and fasting for the government, parliament and the president of Belarus that God would give them the wisdom not to approve this anti-Christian law". More than 600 people joined an open air prayer service in the rain in the Friendship of Peoples park in central Minsk.

Peters of the Council of Churches believes that if the law is adopted "persecution" is likely to return. "Maybe it will be like in Uzbekistan, where the law is very harsh," he told Keston. "But we're not panicking. God is greater." (END)