by Felix Corley, Keston News Service
Belarus' repressive new religion law enters into legal force this coming Saturday (16 November), Keston News Service has learnt. From that date all unregistered religious activity by organised groups will be illegal; all communities with fewer than 20 members will become illegal and will not be able to function; any religious activity in private homes - apart from occasional, small scale meetings - will be illegal; religious communities that do not have a registered umbrella body will no longer be able to invite foreign citizens for religious work or run any religious teaching establishments; and all religious literature will be subject to compulsory prior censorship before it can be imported or distributed.
The religion law, signed by President Aleksandr Lukashenko on 31 October, was officially published in Belarusian in the state paper Zvyazda on 5 November and in Russian in the state paper Narodnaya gazeta on 12 November. It enters legal force ten days from the day after its first official publication. A number of religious communities have already declared that they will defy the law, which is the most repressive religion law in Europe (see KNS 5 November 2002).
In addition to the sweeping new restrictions, all religious organisations will have to undergo compulsory re-registration within the next two years. Aleksandr Kalinov of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs told Keston from Minsk on 14 November that his committee has already drawn up new regulations setting out the registration procedure for religious organisations, which have now been sent for approval to the executive committees of the country's six regions plus Minsk city. Once they have approved them the text must go to the Council of Ministers for final approval. Only then will the regulations be published. He expected the process to take only two or three weeks. He said that until the new regulations are adopted, no registration applications will be considered.
Kalinov was keen to reassure religious communities that the law will not have retroactive force and that no religious communities will lose the legal status they have achieved even if they no longer meet the requirements of the new law. "No-one's legal status will be lowered," he declared categorically. "The law will not harm the rights of any religious community."
However, his bland reassurance was regarded sceptically by some observers. "They always say that laws have no retroactive force, but I believe this one will have," Oleg Gulak, executive director of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, told Keston from Minsk on 14 November. "I believe religious organisations that fail to meet the new requirements will be liquidated." However, he said he hoped practice will be better than they fear. "I hope Kalinov is not lying."
Equally sceptical was Dina Shavtsova, a lawyer of the Imperative law firm who has defended religious liberty cases. "It is true according to the law that it does not have retroactive force, but the problem is that non- lawyers are the people who will be implementing it on the spot," she told Keston from Minsk on 14 November. She said that she had discussed how far the law will have retroactive force with Valery Lipkin, head of the parliamentary commission which handled the law. "He told me that they will be able to liquidate communities that fail to meet the requirements of the new law."
Evidence is already mounting that the new law is beginning to restrict religious activity. Pastor Vasily Moskalenko of the Grace of Christ Pentecostal Church in Minsk told Keston on 14 November that there have been several incidents where neighbours have complained of small groups meeting in private homes for worship. "This began after the new law was adopted," he reported.
Minsk Pentecostal pastor Aleksandr Ruskevich was reportedly summoned to the executive committee of Minsk's Frunze district where he was questioned about the activity of his church and told that believers were not allowed to pray in tongues, only in Russian. However, Ruskevich declined to discuss the incident with Keston.
A spokesperson for the Pentecostal Union, who declined to be named, told Keston that the Union feared such incidents would only increase with the adoption of the new law. However, the spokesperson pointed to "positive indicators", including the publication in the presidential newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussiya on 13 November of an article by the Pentecostal leader, Bishop Sergei Khomich, where he outlined the life and history of his Church.
The spokesperson also pointed to the local authorities in Ruba near Vitebsk, who have not bowed to pressure from a local Orthodox priest and a regional deputy to halt the construction of a Pentecostal church. "The town administration supports the building of the church, pointing out that it has official permission," the spokesperson told Keston on 14 November. "They refused to give official permission for a demonstration against the completion of the church organised by the Orthodox priest."
Elsewhere, the authorities have already used "public opinion" - often stirred up by local Orthodox priests - to prevent non-Orthodox religious communities gaining registration or receiving building permission. In one recent incident, Shavtsova lodged a complaint to the Council of Ministers on behalf of a Full Gospel church that "public opinion is not a legal basis to determine what activity a church may undertake."
The Pentecostal spokesperson was concerned that local authorities might not abide by the law laid down by the government in Minsk. "We fear the situation on the ground locally won't be under the control of the central authorities."
In a last-ditch protest against the new law, two people - among them the Catholic Igor Zakrevsky from the town of Borisov - staged a demonstration on Independence Square in central Minsk on 8 November. They were detained by police of the city's Moscow district.
Copyright (c) 2002 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.