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Belarus: New Religion Law May Be Restrictive, But It's Not All That Unusual

Belarus's parliament has adopted a religion law that one knowledgeable critic calls the most repressive in Europe. Yet most of the former Soviet republics, including Russia itself, have regulations or practices that match at least some of those in the new Belarusian law. RFE/RL compares Belarus's restrictions on religious observance to those of other nations in transition from communism.

Prague, 4 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is expected to sign into law next week a religion law that the authoritative Keston Institute says is the most restrictive in Europe.

The legislation -- which both houses of parliament have approved -- outlaws all religious assemblies and groups except those registered with the state. And it bars from registering any religious community that has been active in the country for fewer than 20 years, and any group with fewer than 20 Belarusian citizens among its adherents.

Belarusian parliamentarian Syarhey Kastsyan recently defended the new law. He said it is intended to erect a barrier against Western clergy who "creep into Belarus and discredit Slavic values."

Leanid Zemlyakou, human rights chairman of the parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, National Relations, and Mass Media, told RFE/RL last summer as the law was being drafted that Belarus is only exercising its right as a state to exert control over its populace: "It is very simple. Every state has the right to check, to control. It is why states exists."

Felix Corley is director of the British-based Keston News Service, which specializes in closely following religious matters in formerly communist countries. He says only Uzbekistan goes as far as Belarus in overtly requiring religious registration. "Belarus and Uzbekistan are the only two [former Soviet republics] that in law -- in their religious law -- say that registration is compulsory and that unregistered religious activity is illegal."

But, Corley says, the lack of specific legal prohibitions does not guarantee religious denominations elsewhere freedom from harassment. "All of them [the former Soviet republics] imply, or expect, religious organizations to register but do not specifically say that they must. And they also do not say that unregistered religious activity is illegal."

Jehovah's Witnesses, an ardent Christian denomination, is a frequent target of restrictions on religion. Its adherents refuse military service, will not submit to some vital medical procedures for themselves and their children, and actively seek converts through highly visible missionary work.

In Armenia, for example, authorities have jailed at least 23 Jehovah's Witnesses and are prosecuting many others for refusing military service. This has put Armenia at odds with the Council of Europe, of which Armenia is a member.

Nations that join the council voluntarily accede to its obligations, one of which is that they provide alternative civilian-service opportunities for religious conscientious objectors to armed service. But the deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament, Tigran Torosian, stood unrepentant in a comment last week: "Jehovah's Witnesses must bring their statutes into conformity with Armenian law in order to be able to operate freely."

At the same time, Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian made it evident at a meeting of a new Council on Religious Affairs that the government's objections to Jehovah's Witnesses' rests on more than the group's stand on military service. "We will not allow those sects to undermine state security. We will not allow them to engage in proselytism."

The Keston News Service's Corley says that many countries punish or restrict religious activity by unregistered groups even where such activity is not prohibited by law. He cites three examples: "The other countries are, in particular, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, where there is very strong pressure on unregistered religious groups to register, and where unregistered religious activity is de facto treated as illegal. Indeed, there was an amendment two years ago to Kazakhstan's Administrative Code prescribing punishment for people who refused to register their religious communities."

The Keston News Service quotes Amanbek Mukhashev, deputy chairman of the Kazakh government's Council for Relations with Religious Organizations, as saying, "Occasionally improper activities are performed under the cover of religion, and so we will not permit the existence of unregistered religious organizations."

A subtler way some countries use registration requirements to put pressure on less-favored religious groups is by granting special rights and status to what are deemed "traditional" faiths. Thus, in Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church enjoys high status.

Corley says that neighboring Lithuania looked farther afield for its model. "Lithuania has really followed the Central European model of religious legislation by giving much greater rights to traditional faiths, ones who've been there in the country for a long time."

The Keston editor says this model dates to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and that vestiges remain in Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Romania.