BELARUS: Repressive Religion Law Still Awaits President's Signature.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 23 October 2002

Three weeks after its adoption by the upper chamber of Belarus' parliament, the controversial amendments to the country's religion law have still not been signed by President Aleksandr Lukashenko. "We've got no news," Aleksandr Kalinov, head of the religious affairs department of the government's Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, told Keston News Service from Minsk at the end of the working day on 23 October. "If the president had signed the law it would have been in the press." Keston tried to reach officials at the presidential administration on 23 October, but without success.

Many in Belarus are surprised by the delay, as the law had strong backing from the government and the dominant Russian Orthodox Church and Lukashenko has already declared that he has no objection to signing it. "It's really strange," Artur Livshits, a lawyer and a member of the Civic Initiative For Freedom of Conscience, told Keston from Minsk late on 23 October. "We really want to know what is happening."

Despite widespread protests by religious minority communities, the new version of the religion law was adopted on 2 October by the upper house of parliament, the Council of the Republic (see KNS 2 October 2002). According to Article 100 of the constitution, parliament has to send the law to the president for signature within ten days. The president then has 14 days to sign the law or, if he is dissatisfied with it, to return it to the lower house of parliament. If he fails to do either, the law enters legal force anyway.

Livshits said he had learnt that the president's office had received the text of the law from parliament on 9 or 10 October, which means the deadline for signature is imminent. Kalinov told Keston he did not know when the deadline expires. Valery Lipkin, head of a parliamentary commission which handled the law, told Keston on 22 October that he believed the president had received the text somewhere between the 7 and 9 October.

If signed by the president, as is expected, 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. (END)