BELARUS: Pressure Mounts on President to Veto Repressive Religion Law.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 8 October 2002

With just days to go before President Aleksandr Lukashenko is expected to sign the highly restrictive new religion law adopted by the upper chamber of parliament on 2 October (see KNS 2 October 2002), pressure is mounting on him to veto what many minority faiths and human rights activists regard as an inadequate law. Artur Livshits, a member of the Civic Initiative For Freedom of Conscience, believes the law is merely a reworking of Stalin's 1929 decree on religious associations, which imposed severe restrictions on religious activity that remained for almost the entire Soviet period. "Many articles of the new law coincide with the 1929 decree, only the wording has been changed," he told Keston News Service from Minsk on 4 October. "See to what sad traditions this new law is returning us." Pentecostal leaders have claimed the adoption of the new law will lead to a wave of religious emigration.

Despite strong support for the new law from the largest religious community in Belarus, the Belarusian Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate, a recent survey has not found strong support for restrictions on minority faiths among the population. A poll by the Minsk-based Independent Institute for Social/Economic and Political Research, reported by the Russian news agency Blagovest-info on 4 October, found that 57.7 per cent of respondents to a survey believed that all faiths should be equal, while only just over 33 per cent believed that the Orthodox Church should have primacy over other faiths. The poll found that 67 per cent of respondents regarded themselves as "Orthodox", 13.1 per cent as "Catholics", 7.4 per cent as "Christians", 4.9 per cent as "atheists", one per cent as "non-believers", 0.6 per cent as "Protestants" and 0.1 per cent each as "Jews" and "Muslims".

Sergei Karnyushko, spokesperson for the Pentecostal Union, the second biggest religious community in Belarus by the number of registered communities, believes the new law will encourage people to seek emigration on religious grounds. "If in the past many people emigrated for economic reasons, now there will be another reason: the contemporary religious situation," he told Radio Liberty on 3 October. "There is in essence discrimination on religious grounds." He reported that from the Minsk Pentecostal Grace church alone 50 people plus their dependants had already left the country this year. He reckoned that thousands more could think of emigrating, educated and hard-working people who would be a loss for Belarus. Some churches were considering leaving en masse.

His fears were echoed by the head of the Pentecostal Union, Bishop Sergei Khomich, who believes many Pentecostals are certain the situation will get worse and regard it as safer to emigrate to live with their co-religionists in the United States. "We came out of the underground," he declared. "During Soviet rule we were not allowed to hold services. We held them in private flats, even in the woods. It's possible that some churches will again be in that situation." But he vowed that his Church would not give up its work, even if congregations were forcibly closed down.

Immediately after the upper house adopted the law, the leaders of four of the largest Protestant denominations wrote an open letter to President Lukashenko urging him not to sign. "Appealing to you as the guarantor of constitutional rights, we ask you not to allow the entry into force of the discriminatory provisions of the law. This would remove the preconditions for the beginning of the destabilisation of religious peace and concord in our country," wrote Bishop Nikolai Sinkovets of the Baptist Union, Bishop Khomich of the Pentecostal Union, Vyacheslav Goncharenko of the Full Gospel Association and Moisei Ostrovsky of the Adventist Church. "The law creates serious obstacles to the further constructive activity of our churches, and destroys the inter-confessional balance that has been achieved." The four leaders complained that officials had never sought their views during the long process of adopting the new law and stressed that they believe that the "traditions of tolerance" in Belarus must be preserved.

On 3 October Yakov Basin, director in Belarus of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, wrote to the United States ambassador to Belarus, Michael Kozak, asking for help to prevent the law being signed. "In our opinion the new Law is actively directed to the strengthening of the total state control over the religious life of the society (not only of the religious organizations, but of every believer, too), as well as state regulation of the formation and development of the confessions," Basin wrote. He complained that some articles of the law contradict the Belarusian constitution and the civil and housing codes, as well as international laws in the field of freedom of conscience. "The Law puts the existing in Belarus confessions to the unequal conditions, creates the discriminating measures for the development of new confessions and existence of the religious minorities." He warned that this could lead to "religious destabilization" in society, acts of civil disobedience and the beginning of "illegal religious life" in the country.

The new law has also caused concern among international human rights campaigners. The British-based Article 19, which works for freedom of expression worldwide, has written to President Lukashenko calling on the Belarusian government to amend the law to exclude Article 26 (except for part 1) - provisions that introduce prior compulsory censorship of all religious literature and make it impossible for groups which have not been active for at least twenty years to publish or import such literature. Article 19 calls on the government to create conditions for religious organisations to be able to express the beliefs and views without fear of persecution.

On 7 October, United States Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Christopher Smith said the adoption of the "burdensome and restrictive" new law by Belarus' upper chamber of parliament struck "another blow against religious freedom". "This repressive legislation, targeting minority religions, clearly violates internationally accepted human rights standards," Smith said. "Lukashenko and his regime of hand-picked legislators are obviously intent on stamping out minority religious communities, leaving only the state-recognised Orthodox Church to decide how individuals practice their faith."

Members of minority faiths still hope at this late hour that the new law will not be enacted. "The president has until 14 October to sign or refuse to sign," Aleksandr Sakovich, head of the Full Gospel Association, told Keston from Minsk on 8 October. He said that many appeals had come in to the president from around the world pointing out that many provisions of the law violate human rights. "We have deep faith that the law will not be signed. We wait and pray." (END)