Belarus: Repressive Religion Bill Sneaked Through Parliament

Tuesday, August 6, 2002

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

The campaign group For Freedom of Conscience has described as "a bolt from out of the blue" the sudden adoption by parliament yesterday (27 June) of a repressive religion bill that only a day earlier had been postponed until the autumn (see KNS 26 June 2002). "Yesterday, when I learnt that consideration of the draft law had been postponed until the autumn I thought that common sense had prevailed among the deputies," German Rodov, head of the Bible Society, declared in a 27 June statement passed to Keston News Service. "But today I have the impression that in taking these decisions the deputies are completely ignoring the views of tens of thousands of Belarusian citizens. This law is a fiasco for the Chamber of Representatives as a parliament and testimony to its bankruptcy." Religious minorities in Belarus now fear President Aleksandr Lukashenko will sign the bill into law today, the last day of the parliamentary session.

Leaders of four main Protestant communities, the Baptists, the Pentecostals, the Full Gospel Church and the Adventists, are planning a press conference to express their concerns later today (28 June).

If signed by the president, the new law would be the most repressive religion law in any former Soviet republic other than Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan. It would outlaw unregistered religious activity, introduce compulsory prior censorship for all religious literature; publishing, education and charitable activity would be restricted to faiths that had ten registered communities in 1982; there would be a ban on all but occasional, small religious meetings in private homes (see KNS 17 June and 28 May 2002). While Orthodox and Catholic representatives have broadly welcomed or accepted the bill, Protestants and leaders of minority faiths have sharply criticised it.

On the pretext that the electronic voting on 26 June had gone wrong, the bill was again presented for its second reading in the afternoon of Thursday, and was adopted. "Everything went as if according to a pre-determined scenario," For Freedom of Conscience declared. "Within an hour and a half, article by article without any discussion, the bill was adopted." Eighty two deputies voted in favour, with only two against. Within fifteen minutes, the upper chamber, the Council of the Republic, also approved the bill, according to information from deputies. An official of the Council of the Republic declined to confirm to Keston on 28 June whether it had approved the law the previous day or not.

Pentecostal pastor Vasily Moskalenko complained of the way the deputies had handled the bill. "Such lurching from one side to another testifies to the deputies' lack of competence and independence in adopting the decision," he declared in the wake of the bill's adoption.

"We have gone back to 1936 and Stalin's repressions," Father Yan Spasyuk, leader of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which has been denied registration, told Keston from the village of Pogranichny on 28 June. "When I heard yesterday it had been adopted by parliament I was struck dumb. Everything has been taken from us. Now I'm no longer a priest, just a layman." He said he was now considering challenging the new law - if it is signed by the president - in the country's Constitutional Court.

Father Spasyuk blamed the Moscow Patriarchate's Exarchate in Belarus for the new law. "It feels its weakness in the face of our Church and the Protestants. That's why they decided to change the law." He said he had heard that parliamentary deputies had been taken to the Exarchate a few days ago and shown films attacking minority faiths, especially Protestants. Keston has been unable to verify the claim independently.