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Belarus: Bill Aims To Restrict Registration Of Nontraditional Religious Groups

Many Belarusian religious groups are protesting the draft of a bill that introduces compulsory registration of religious communities, as well as other restrictions on religious freedoms in the country. A draft of the bill was recently given preliminary approval by the Belarusian parliament. Western analysts say the law would endanger the existence of many Protestant churches and nontraditional religious movements in Belarus.

Prague, 19 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Many small Protestant and nontraditional religious communities in Belarus say a proposed bill that would require the registration of religious communities would endanger their very existence. A draft of the bill was already been approved by parliament in a first reading on 31 May and is expected to be finally approved later this month.

The law will hit small religious communities and new religious movements in Belarus, such as the Hare Krishnas, especially hard. According to the draft, the authorities will register only those religious communities that consist of more than 20 Belarusian citizens. The others would be outlawed. The bill would also outlaw all religious groups not active in the country 20 years ago. All religious literature would need the approval of a new state agency before being distributed.

Analysts say the law will enhance the state's control over Belarusian society and increase the position of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is the biggest religious community in the country. Some 70 percent of Belarusians say they are Orthodox believers, while 15 percent say they are Catholics. The rest consider themselves Muslims, Jews, or Protestants of various denominations.

Felix Corley is an analyst at the Keston Institute, a British organization that monitors religious freedom in Eastern Europe. He told RFE/RL that the requirement that religious communities have at least 20 members before being registered will seriously impact the ability of religious groups to form legal national bodies. To do so, they must prove the existence of at least 10 registered religious communities.

Corley said the stipulation that a religious group must have functioned in Belarus for 20 years is also draconian. "That means the Belarusian authorities are going back to the position as of 1982, which was at the height of the Soviet restrictions on religious communities," Corley said.

Corley said only the Russian Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, and the country's main Jewish organizations will be able to gain registration.

He said the draft introduces a wide variety of other restrictions that have not existed in the country for the last 10 years, one of them being prior compulsory approval of all religious literature. "All religious communities will have to have the religious literature that they import or produce within the country checked out by a group of experts appointed by the government, which could mean that Hare Krishna books or even Protestant books [or] Protestant newspapers could be banned," Corley said.

Corley said the draft of the bill also includes a provision specifically recognizing the Russian Orthodox Church as having a preeminent role. He said it recognizes the "spiritual and historic role" of the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, Orthodox Judaism, and Sunni Islam. He said the draft discriminates against all other religious communities and violates Belarus's international commitments on human rights.

Last week, a citizens committee called Freedom of Conscience was set up in Belarus. The group unites members of several religious communities and is strongly opposed to the bill.

Alyaksandr Velicko of the Pentecostal Church is a member of this group. He told RFE/RL that the bill is all but certain to be approved. Velicko predicted the situation in Belarus will be gloomy when the bill comes into effect. "I can even say there can be a destabilization of the political situation because some 30 percent of religious communities will be pushed underground. They will be made to congregate illegally. Executive measures will be taken against them and, finally, they could be taken to court," Velicko said.

Velicko said there are 30,000 members of the Pentecostal Church in Belarus and that 491 Pentecostal communities are registered in the country. He said 277 Pentecostal communities are still waiting for registration. Velicko believes that one-third of the communities that have already registered will lose their registration because they have fewer than 20 members.

Last weekend, 750 Protestant congregations across Belarus prayed and fasted to protest the bill. Viktor Krutko, a bishop in the 30,000-strong Belarusian Baptist Church, took part in Sunday's prayers. Krutko said he trusts only in God's help. "We all prayed and fasted. We prayed for our government, our president, our parliament. We asked God to stop them," Krutko said.

Sergei Kostyan, a deputy in the Belarusian parliament, is one of the supporters of the bill. He sais the new law would "put up a barrier against all these Western preachers who just creep into Belarus and discredit Slavic values."

The Keston Institute's Corley said Kostyan's remarks reflect a myth about Western preachers in Belarus, which he says is spread by the Russian Orthodox Church to strengthen its own position.

Leonid Zemlyakov is the human-rights chairman of the parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, National Relations, and Mass Media. Zemlyakov told RFE/RL that Belarus is an independent state and has the right to issue the laws it finds necessary.

Asked why the state finds it necessary to assume the role of religious censor, Zemlyakov said: "It is very simple. Every state has the right to check, to control. It is why states exists."

The chairman of the Belarusian State Committee of Religions and Religious Affairs, Stanislav Bukov, refused to speak with RFE/RL by telephone and asked for questions to be faxed to him. No answers were ever received.