Religion bill seen as coup for Orthodox Church

  • 2002-11-07

President Alexander Lukashenko signed into force last week a controversial law banning the registration of new religious organizations in Belarus unless they have been present in the country for more than 20 years.

The bill, adopted by the legislature Oct. 2, requires a religious organization to have existed in Belarus for 20 years and to have at least 20 members to be recognized.

Protestant groups said it would oblige them to dissolve many of their organisations and force many of their faithful to emigrate, but officials rejected the complaints.

"There is nothing in this law to hinder freedom of conscience or of belief. The protests have been made up," Lukashenko spokeswoman Natalya Petkevich said.

Petkevich said that negative reactions to the new law had come only from the United States, while European states had refrained from making any comments.

"This law is very constructive and balanced," she said.

The presidential press office said opposition to the law came from groups "seeking to cash in on religious sentiments."

Critics say the law aims to buttress the position of the Orthodox Church to the detriment of Protestant groups active in the former Soviet republic.

"The new law has already begun to cause us problems, creating tensions among people forbidden to hold prayer-meetings in their apartments.

"This discriminatory law will arouse negative reactions all over, but the president won't listen," said Dina Shavtsova, a lawyer for the Belarus Union of Evangelical Christians.

Shavtsova said the union would appeal to Belarus' constitutional court arguing that the law was contrary to the constitution and to the country's international obligations.

Roughly half of Belarus' population say they hold religious beliefs, 80 percent of them being Orthodox, 14 percent Catholic and 2 percent Protestant.

Separately, Belarussian police broke up an unauthorised rally in the eastern city of Vitebsk, arresting eight people, late Oct. 30, the Interfax news agency reported.

The protestors, marking the International Day of the Victims of Political Repression, demanded protection from political persecution, a spokesman for the group, the United Civil Party, told Interfax.