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

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 2 October 2002

Following the adoption this morning (2 October) by the upper house of the Belarusian parliament of the controversial amendments to the country's religion law (see KNS article earlier today), the bill now goes to President Aleksandr Lukashenko for signature. The president has ten days to sign and the law then comes into force ten days after that. All religious organisations in Belarus will then have to undergo compulsory re-registration over the next two years (see separate KNS article), and bring their statutes into line with the new law.

Both parliamentary and unofficial sources in Minsk told Keston that the revised religion law was adopted in the Council of the Republic with 46 votes in favour, 2 against and 4 abstentions, unchanged from the text adopted by the lower house of parliament on 27 June (see KNS 1 July 2002). One of the two senators to vote against the bill and the only one to speak up against it during the debate was Yadviga Grigorovich, deputy chair of the upper house's social affairs commission. "Religious peace in our country is very shaky. If this law is passed, interfaith conflicts await Belarus," she told Reuters.

If signed by the president, as everyone expects, 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.

In a one-man protest, the administrator of the New Life Protestant church, Vasyl Yurevich, stood outside parliament during the session holding banners criticising the bill. According to the website, police detained him within half an hour and took him to the administrative court of Minsk's Moscow district, where he received an official warning. "This law is a disgrace to our state," he told the website. Its adoption will open the way to lawlessness, that's why I went to the square to express my protest against its adoption."

Oleg Kaminsky, a spokesman for the Council of the Republic, told Keston that ahead of the debate, 10,000 signatures had come into parliament supporting the bill. (In its coverage on 2 October of the bill's adoption, Belarusian television had claimed that 220,000 signatures had come into parliament in support and 550 against the draft law.) Asked why parliament had chosen to adopt a law that violated the fundamental human rights of people within Belarus, Kaminsky admitted that the law had defects. "When it comes into force the first step will be to adopt some amendments," he told Keston from Minsk on 2 October. "But it is better to have this law than no law." Asked why lawmakers had not waited until a better version was available, he declared: "That was the will of parliament."

News of the adoption of the bill brought predictable responses from religious communities. Andrei Petrashkevich, spokesman for Russian Orthodox leader in Belarus Metropolitan Filaret, was happy. "Thank God!" he told Keston by telephone from Minsk on 2 October. He stressed that the Orthodox Church had played an "active role" in the adoption of the bill, lobbying for it and collecting signatures in support in individual parishes across the country. "This was not an organised process, he claimed. "Parishes that wished to take part did so, at the initiative of local believers, priests or bishops."

However, all minority faiths contacted by Keston condemned the move. Georgi Vyazovsky, pastor of Christ Covenant Church, a Reform Baptist church in Minsk with nine other associated congregations, told Keston by telephone on 2 October that the law was "very bad" and "against the Gospel". "It was adopted to support the Russian Orthodox Church." Vyazovsky said his church had written to parliamentary deputies to urge them not to adopt the law, but had failed. "The deputies were doing the will of Mr President."

Sergei Karnyushenko, spokesman for the Pentecostal Union, the second biggest religious community in Belarus by the number of communities, was likewise unhappy. "This law will affect all our communities, especially the small ones," he told Keston. "It will affect other faiths too." He said that although his Union has 494 registered communities, there are about 250 more whose registration has already been obstructed under the current law. He believes this will only worsen, despite the fact that the Union will have no problem retaining the status of a "religious association", which will be necessary in future to publish books and magazines, import religious literature, maintain religious educational establishments and invite foreigners for religious work.

Larysa Androsik, a Greek Catholic laywoman from Minsk, told Keston the new law would create "very many difficulties" for her church, which has only 14 registered communities and has faced official obstruction in Pinsk and Slonim and elsewhere to attempts to register local parishes. "It is already very very difficult for us to get a building to register as a church." Greek Catholic priest Father Igor Kandraceu told Keston from the western city of Brest that the Greek Catholics have been unable to register an association for the past nine years. "We have been in negotiation with officials," he told Keston. "They do not give an official refusal but negotiations drag on and on. Under the new law it will be even more difficult."

Androsik said the Roman Catholic Church had supported the bill. "They said they didn't see any problems with it, although they have many complaints about it."

Equally condemnatory was Artur Livshits, a lawyer and a member of the Civic Initiative For Freedom of Conscience, which has been campaigning against the law. "The first people to suffer will be the Protestants and all the non-traditional faiths," he told Keston from Minsk on 2 October. "It is not good for the Jews either. This will cause destabilisation of the religious situation in Belarus."

Livshits pointed out that small religious communities not able to muster the 20 adult citizens required for registration under the new law will be rendered illegal. "People won't be able to meet for religious purposes in private homes," he explained. "If someone wants to meet for Friday Shabbat prayers and light candles, it will be an offence. The police will take them from their apartment."

Livshits said his group will be meeting this evening, 2 October, to plan its future protests. He said they will be appealing to President Lukashenko to veto the new law and asking international organisations to join their protests. He added that if this fails, they will try to gather 50,000 signatures across Belarus on an initiative to have the parliament make "democratic changes" to the law.

Although Vyazovsky objected to the restrictions in the new law, he told Keston he was not worried. "I'm a Calvinist. I believe in providence. We shall find a way to continue to meet, worship and publish literature. Even in the Soviet times people did this. God will provide the way." (END)