Monday, September 23, 2002

Belarus: new religion law drafted

Date: Monday 23 September 2002
Subj: Belarus: Advocating for religious freedom.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator


The government of Belarus is presently considering introducing a highly restrictive religion law that would drive Belarus back into Soviet era oppression, crippling the numerous small Protestant evangelical and non-traditional groups that have revived, or come into Belarus, since Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

BELARUS RELIGION BILL

If adopted as drafted, the new religion law will outlaw unregistered religious activity and only those religious communities that consist of more than 20 Belarusian citizens will be able to gain registration. This will threaten smaller groups and make the founding of new communities impossible. Also, the leader of any religious organisation will have to be a Belarus citizen. This is highly discriminatory and will cause serious difficulties for many religious groups after so many years of Communist oppression.

If the law is passed religious meetings will not be permitted to take place regularly in private homes and all religious literature will be subjected to State censorship.

If the law is passed, a denomination seeking registration as a legal entity will have to have at least 10 separate registered groups, of which one must have existed in 1982 - at the height of the Soviet oppression. Julia Doxat-Purser, Socio-Political Representative and Religious Liberty Coordinator of the European Evangelical Alliance, notes, "This means that many Protestant Churches and other faiths cannot and can never become associations. Only religious associations can train clergy, invite foreigners to come and be staff, establish missions and schools or run mass media (Articles 27 - 29). Denying faith communities the right to train leaders or have foreign staff would make continuing existence impossible."

WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY

There had been great secrecy around the proposed religion law and most people were completely unaware of its contents until it was brought before parliament for discussion. The lower house of parliament voted to have the reading of religion law postponed, but this was overthrown and the law was hastily passed in the lower house on 27 June. However, on 28 June, the final day of the spring session, the upper house voted to postpone the reading until after the summer recess, citing lack of time get acquainted with the text. The reading in the upper house will now take place on 2 October, the first day of the next parliamentary session.

The postponement has given churches and human rights lawyers in Belarus a window of opportunity to raise awareness of the issues and to advocate for religious freedom. Many analysts believe the law is part of a wider political policy of supporting the Orthodox Church (who are in full favour of the bill) in an effort to strengthen Slavic identity / nationalism and unity. This fails to acknowledge the immense social contribution and positive influence the Protestant Church has made to all spheres of life in Belarus ever since the fifteen century.

Julia Doxat-Purser reports, "The Baptist, Pentecostal, Full Gospel and Adventist Churches are united as they stand together to talk to politicians. They are working closely with human rights lawyers. They are helping to organise a conference on the proposed law for 30 September."

Church Representatives were also able to distribute information about the religious situation in Belarus at the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) conference in Warsaw, held from 9-19 September 2002.