Wednesday 19 Mary

�Recently we were officially informed that no more foreign priests could come to Belarus because the Catholic Church now has a seminary of its own and the first priests were already trained,� reported KAZIMIERZ CARDINAL SWIATEK. At age 84, the cardinal serves as archbishop of Minsk and bishop of Pinsk. Condemned to death in 1939, he was imprisoned for a decade and in 1991 became the first Catholic bishop in Belarus for almost 50 years. Since that time the first seminary has received 25 candidates for the priesthood annually - not nearly enough to replenish the parishes, ninety per cent of which were detroyed or confiscated by the communists. The initial rebuilding of the Church has been made possible by 130 Polish priests who have come to serve in Belarus since the early 1990s. These foreign priests - seven of whom serve in the Chernobyl diocese - are the very ones affected by this government decree.

Cardinal Swiatek explained, �We are most heavily restricted at the administrative level. The priests who come from abroad require permission from the state, without which they cannot carry out their minstry as priests.�

Despite severe restrictions the Cardinal presses on rebuilding and restoring the Catholic Church. Asked what gives him the strength to continue his work, the Cardinal replied, �The Church in Belarus is led by the Holy Spirit, by God. I am only His implement�. (END)

Wednesday 19 May

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service

The new Russian law on freedom of conscience stipulates that every religious organisation is to be reregistered - centrally or locally - by the end of this year. ALEKSANDR KUDRYAVTSEV, the head of the Ministry of Justice Registration Department, told Keston: �Registration is proceeding normally, there is still plenty of time to complete it. There are some 16,000 organisations to be reregistered, in accordance with the new law. Last year very few local organisations, among them Russian Orthodox parishes, decided to register because they were waiting for the re-registration of their headquarters in Moscow , some with revised statutes. The best example, again, is the Russian Orthodox Church. Only a month or so ago it finalised the revised statute for nearly 8,000 its parishes.�

Asked what might happen to those organisations which, for whatever reason, would not be registered by 31 December 1999, Kudryavtsev replied: �I am sure they wouldn't be immediately liquidated. The 1997 law states that such religious organisations "may be liquidated by legal process", i.e. as a result of a court case. But we don't need unpleasant publicity connected with such cases.�

Much less optimistic is the opinion of ANATOLI PCHELINTSEV, the head of the Slavonic Legal Centre. He thinks that after 31 December �many organisations will simply be liquidated�. In his wide legal experience, he said, �there were many cases when a local organisation, even if it is a branch of a central one, was refused registration by local officials who can always find a pretext to refuse if they want to.� The Slavonic Legal Centre tries to convince such officials that they must base their decisions only on strictly legal grounds. For that purpose, the Centre has convened special conferences to which officials from the provinces are invited. It has also distributed specialised legal literature.

YEKATERINA SMYSLOVA, the director of the Esther Information and Legal Centre, believes that many religious organisations will not be able to achieve reregistration in the remaining few months - mainly those founded by foreign missionaries.

Keston Institute has already reported on the difficulties of re-registering foreign religious organisations ( like the Jesuits or Jehovah's Witnesses). But, on the other hand, not all Churches are willing to register. They remember how the atheistic state interfered with their internal affairs and fear that present re-registration will again lead to unwanted interference. A representative of the Union of Evangelical Churches, NATALIYA BRONITSKAYA, told Keston that members of the Union would not register as long as the state did not stop its attempts to control the affairs of the Churches. The state, says Bronitskaya, has long tried to tell us who may be a pastor and how to spend our money. This was in the past, but reregistration is a bad omen for the future. She insists that lack of registration does not bother the members at all. �We have established our right to faith through suffering. Everyone knows this. Just let them try and question our rights again.� (END)

Wednesday 19 May

by Leonid Finkelstein, Keston News Service

The Standing Committee on Human Rights - a part of the Political Consultative Council advising the President of the Russian Federation - has severely criticised the Federal law of 1997 �On Freedom of Conscience and on Religion Associations�.

In a long session last Friday the Committee, under the chairmanship of VALERI BORSHCHEV, MP, discussed an interpellation brought by the Human Rights Ombudsman in the Russian Federation (Mr. O.O. MIRONOV). He expressed the opinion that the law of 1997 was in breach of the Constitution of the Russian Federation . Contrary to Articles 14.1 and 14.2 of the Constitution, the law introduced a privileged status for some religions and established legal norms that actually led to discrimination against some confessions. The differentiation between religious associations and religious groups was in contradiction with the European Convention on Human Rights. The law also drew distinction between �traditional� religious organisations and those which had no �documents certifying their existence on the corresponding territory for at least 15 years�. The Ombudsman complained about other provisions of the law as well - such as not granting the status of religious association to any foreign religious organisation or the possible restriction of individual freedom of conscience as a result of the necessity �to ensure the defence and security of the state�.

In his introductory remarks, Borshchev said that the 1997 law opened the way to restrictive practices and had already led to many grave errors , conflicts and unpleasant episodes. The law allowed aggressive individuals in regional administrations to trample upon the rights of members of various confessions. Mr. Borshchev criticised the widespread notion that Russian Orthodox Christianity was a sort of an ideology of the new Russian state. The Committee member PROFESSOR ANDREI LEBEDEV spoke of the need to introduce many substantial changes into the law. He ridiculed the opinion of some over-vigilant local bosses that �religious security� should be maintained: this in fact meant suppression of any confessions except the Russian Orthodox. Professor Lebedev has even suggested that the number of necessary amendments to the law is so great that it would be better to scrap the law and to work out a new one.

Two speakers - ANDREI SEBENTSOV, one of the drafters of the law, and FR VSEVOLOD CHAPLIN of the Moscow Patriarchate - defended the law. However, Sebentsov admitted that some parts of the law were imperfect and needed correction. Fr Vsevolod insisted that the instances of discrimination against various religious groups were not the results of the law but simply manifested the arbitrariness of some local administrators.

The other eight speakers, among them representatives of the Roman Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses as well as FR GLEB YAKUNIN, a former prisoner of conscience, and a psychiatric expert , PROFESSOR YURI SAVENKO, severely criticised various provisions of the law. The religious writer VLADIMIR OIVIN expressed HIS opinion that no law on religion was actually needed and cited the legislation of some foreign countries. The Committee Secretary then introduced a draft resolution. It stated that the law of 1997 �has undermined one of the fundamental bases of a civil society�, and introduced discrimination and double standards. The Committee considered the 1997 law as antireligious and dangerous to all believers. It aimed to turn religion into a controlled ideology. The draft resolution stated that today, because of the position of the government, there were no purposeful and regular violations of the rights of believers, but when a new president came to power, the norms of the law might serve as a tool to oppress not just some religious associations but all of them. The Committee asked the Constitution Court to speed up its hearing of complains from several religious associations against some discriminative articles of the law. The Committee fully supported the opinion of the Ombudsman and appealed to the State Duma (the Russian Parliament) to start preparing a law on the introduction of amendments to the law of 1997.

According to the chairman, Valeri Borshchev, the final text of the resolution would be worked out to accommodate the opinions expressed during the discussion and then issued to the Political Consultative Council of the President of the Russian Federation. (END)