BELARUS: Leaders of Unregistered Groups 'Will Be Fined'.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 9 October 2002

With unregistered religious activity on the verge of being declared illegal - if as is widely expected President Aleksandr Lukashenko signs the new restrictive religion law adopted on 2 October by the parliament (see KNS 8 October 2002) - a senior religious affairs official has reluctantly confirmed to Keston News Service that leaders of unregistered religious communities will face fines. "There is no offence in the criminal code of conducting illegal religious activity," Aleksandr Kalinov, head of the religious affairs department of the Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, told Keston from Minsk on 8 October, "but those who lead unregistered religious activity will face charges under Article 193 of the Administrative Code, which bans illegal religious activity by destructive sects that cause people suffering." As pressure is already mounting on both registered and unregistered religious communities (see separate KNS article), Kalinov signalled that a major offensive will be launched to pressure leaders of unregistered religious communities to apply for registration. "It is the duty of the state to persuade them to register."

During a 9 October meeting in Minsk with the visiting head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan), President Lukashenko said he is ready to sign the controversial new law, declaring that he saw no defects in it. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, he described it is a balanced document that "does not contain any attacks on other confessions". He noted that the position of the Orthodox Church was being strengthened. "This is right, as Orthodoxy in the republic has long held a proper role in society. Orthodoxy is the determining religion in the Belarusian state and has the strongest influence on the social/political processes underway in the republic. We have supported and will support Orthodoxy in Belarus."

With the new law almost certain to come into force soon, Keston had hoped to discuss the issue of how unregistered religious activity will be punished with Stanislav Buko, chairman of the Committee, but was told on 8 October he was on holiday.

Article 16 of the new law declares categorically: "Religious organisations are subject to compulsory state registration." Article 25 defines where religious events can take place, identifying places of worship and property belonging to them, other places "provided to religious organisations", places of pilgrimage, cemeteries and crematoria. "Religious rites, rituals and ceremonies may be held in homes of citizens in cases of necessity and at their request, under the condition of observing the rules of communal living and social order, as long as they are not of a mass and systematic nature," the article continues. Open air services can only be held with special permission from the local authorities. Services can only be held in prisons, hospitals and the army at the request of citizens in these institutions.

Despite Kalinov's claims, Article 193 of the administrative code - which covers violation of the law on religion - is not directed at "destructive sects", but punishes all unregistered religious activity. "The founding of a religious organisation and the leadership of it without registration of its statute in the prescribed manner or the organisation and conducting by leaders and members of these organisations of special children's and youth meetings and also workers', literature and other circles and groups not connected to the carrying out of the cult, attracts a fine of up to five times the minimum wage," the article declares in its most version, enacted in 1996.

Responding to Keston's questions as to what will happen to those who continue to hold unregistered religious services after the new law comes into force, Kalinov issued bland assurances. "People will have plenty of opportunity to worship in registered communities," he declared. Asked again about those who refuse on principle to subject themselves to registration or who are denied registration but who continue to meet, Kalinov again tried to reassure. "Joint reading of the Bible or religious discussions at home are not a violation of the religion law." Asking again about the many religious groups that have told Keston that they will defy the law if necessary and continue to worship jointly as religious communities without registration, Kalinov insisted that the authorities will not punish believers. "No-one will be imprisoned. We won't hand down sentences if, say, 15 people meet. We don't have legal justification."

When Keston persisted in asking what will happen to religious communities that function without registration, such as communities of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church or Hindus (which have been denied registration) or of the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists (which reject registration on principle), Kalinov was clear. "We will work with their leaders to get them to register voluntarily. We would recommend that they register these organisations. If people found a religious organisation without registration, the authorities would warn them. There are warnings before you get to the stage of administrative warnings."

Told that several hundred Pentecostal congregations have had their registration applications arbitrarily obstructed under the old law, Kalinov maintained that the question of unregistered religious communities had been "artificially created". While affirming that Belarus' constitution guarantees freedom of religion, he said "there are enough Protestant churches in Belarus". He declined to comment on the suggestion that it was up to individual believers, not the state, to decide if there were "enough" communities of any one faith.

Curiously, Kalinov's attitude to the Autocephalous Orthodox and to the unregistered Baptists differed markedly. He declared that the Autocephalous Church "doesn't exist". "It is not a canonically-recognised Orthodox Church." Asked why it was of concern to the state whether the Autocephalous Church was canonical or not, he declared again that anyone pretending to act on behalf of the Autocephalous Church was acting on behalf of a "destructive sect", although he later declared that it is not on the list of "destructive sects" and is not quite in that category, which he said includes groups such as Aum Shinrikyo and Satanists. But he declared that if Father Yan Spasyuk, the Autocephalous Church leader, persists in holding services he will be prosecuted.

By contrast, he seemed unconcerned about the unregistered Baptists. "None of their 29 communities is registered but no-one has been sentenced in the past 15 years. They will not be driven underground again." However, he seemed to believe (against their repeated declarations to Keston) that only the unregistered Baptist leaders rejected registration, not ordinary Baptists. "We will meet them to persuade them to register." He declined to say what would happen to ordinary members or their leaders if they continue to reject registration.

Kalinov pledged that no changes to the criminal code to punish unregistered religious activity are planned. "This would violate the constitution."

Despite Kalinov's assurances, religious freedom activists believe that leaders of unregistered communities will face charges not only under Article 193 of the administrative code, but Article 167-1, which punishes violation of the procedure for holding religious, sporting, mass cultural, and other events and street demonstrations. For repeat offences, this can carry a fine of up to 300 times the minimum monthly wage or imprisonment of up to fifteen days.

Given the future illegality of unregistered activity by organised religious communities, it is certain that at least the leaders of such communities will soon face such fines under the administrative code. However, Kalinov dismissed fears that believers will soon be imprisoned for their faith. "There won't be any religious prisoners," he declared categorically. "Such thoughts are the residue of a Soviet mentality."

Dina Shavtsova, a Minsk-based lawyer who has acted in religious liberty cases, is not reassured. "It is unlikely that criminal charges will be deployed, but it is likely Article 193 will be used, and Article 167-1," she told Keston from Minsk on 9 October. "Other administrative measures could also be used. There are no fixed legal processes, so it is difficult to know what they will think up."

Artur Livshits, a lawyer to the representation in Belarus of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, says believers of all faiths will be affected. "They are already using Article 193 against believers and they will use Article 167-1," he told Keston from Minsk on 9 October. "Any unregistered activity, whether by Orthodox, Catholics, Jews or others, will be punished under this article. I don't understand how they will persuade people to register." (END)