BELARUS: How Many Religious Communities Will Be Driven Underground?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 2 October 2002

If President Aleksandr Lukashenko signs the repressive new religion bill into law as expected (see separate KNS article), representatives of a number of faiths have told Keston News Service that they fear their activity will be rendered illegal as a result of the compulsory re-registration specified as part of the bill. "Only one of our ten congregations has registration at the moment," Georgi Vyazovsky, pastor of Christ Covenant Church, a Reform Baptist church in Minsk, told Keston by telephone on 2 October. "If the president signs this law we will be driven into illegality. None of our communities will pass the re-registration." However, an official of the government's Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs in Minsk has dismissed these fears, pledging that all religious organisations that now have registration will retain it after the re-registration round is over.

Article 3 of provision appended to the bill specifies that within two years of the official publication of the law, the Council of Ministers is to "take the necessary measures for the state re-registration of religious organisations whose statutes were registered before the entry into force of the present law". Aleksandr Kalinov, head of the religious affairs department of the Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, told Keston from Minsk on 2 October that this meant that the registration rights of those religious organisations already on the register will be protected, even if they no longer qualify for registration. "No registered religious organisations will have their rights violated after the entry into force of the new law," he pledged.

Kalinov reported that there are at present 2,830 registered religious organisations in Belarus. Of them, 1,261 are Russian Orthodox, 494 Pentecostal Union, 434 Roman Catholic, 272 Baptist Union, 64 Full Gospel, 56 Adventist, 35 Old Believers, 27 Jehovah's Witness, 27 Muslim, 25 Orthodox Jewish, 20 New Apostolic, 19 Lutheran, 14 Greek Catholic, 12 Progressive Jewish, 9 Apostolic Faith Christians, 7 Hare Krishna, 6 Church of Christ, 6 Baha'i, 3 Mormon, 3 Messianic Jewish, 2 Reformed, 2 Latin-rite Catholic, 1 Church of First Christians, 1 Oomoto, 1 Yoga. He added that the remaining 29 religious organisations are from the Baptist Council of Churches, a group which on principle rejects registration in all the post-Soviet republics where it operates. "They have refused registration, but because we know they exist we have included them," Kalinov told Keston.

However, like Pastor Vyazovsky, many leaders of minority faiths remain suspicious of such claims that groups that already have registration will automatically retain it. "That's not true," Artur Livshits, a lawyer and a member of the Civic Initiative For Freedom of Conscience, told Keston from Minsk on 2 October. "There is no mention of automatic re-registration of religious organisations in the law. They are just trying to keep people calm." Asked whether he believed Kalinov was lying, Livshits responded: "I can't say that he is lying, but the only way I can believe the government is if the law says something, and in this case it doesn't." He points to the difficulties many religious communities already have trying to gain registration.

Livshits reported that in the past months, officials from the Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs have been telephoning religious leaders individually in an attempt to persuade them that the new law will not harm them. "I know five religious leaders who had such calls, among them Protestants and Jews," he reported. "Officials said they would have no problems with re-registration, but they made no specific commitment."

In addition to the new requirement for individual communities to have twenty adult citizen founders (up from ten under the current law), only religious communities that have ten registered congregations, one of which had registration back in 1982 will be able to gain registration for an "association", or umbrella body. Kalinov maintained that this did not necessarily mean that such groups had to have had registration in 1982, merely that they should have "documents" proving that they existed. However, he declined to say what documents would suffice although he stressed that the fact that "two or three people" were meeting then would not be enough. (END)