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BELARUS: Full Gospel Church To Defy Religion Law

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 5 November 2002

The Full Gospel Union - which unites 64 registered Pentecostal churches in Belarus - has declared publicly that it will defy the repressive new religion law signed by President Aleksandr Lukashenko on 31 October (see KNS 31 October 2002). "The entry of this law into force will be a blow to freedom of conscience, one of the fundamental freedoms given to individuals by God and on which basic democratic institutions are founded," Pastor Aleksandr Sakovich, the head of the Union, declared in a 1 November statement received by Keston News Service. "We believe that in this case the authorities have exceeded the powers given by God." And he added: "The newly-adopted law forces us to violate the basic Law on which our faith is based: the Law of God. As believers, we have the full right not to obey laws and decrees that go against our faith and conscience."

Dmitry Zelensky, assistant pastor of the Jesus Christ Full Gospel Church in Minsk agreed. "If the provisions of the law seriously complicate and in time make impossible the holding of services, communal prayers and preaching of the Gospel we retain the right not to submit to its provisions," he declared on 3 November. He also expressed his concern about the new censorship requirements introduced by the new law, which will require all publications imported or distributed within Belarus to undergo compulsory prior censorship by the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs. "We are against the division of denominations into 'right' and 'wrong' denominations." He pointed out that the president's signature on the law came on 31 October, marked as Reformation Day in much of the Protestant world. "We regard the signing of this law as a Reformation Day 'present' to Belarusian Protestants," he declared sarcastically.

Pastor Sakovich recalled that Belarus' history has seen periods of inter-religious tolerance and pointed out that the ending of such tolerance in the seventeenth century brought about a "chronic national crisis". "What will such anti-Biblical measures by the authorities bring at the beginning of the twenty first century?"

The Civic Initiative For Freedom of Conscience - which brings together individuals from a variety of faiths - has likewise condemned the president's decision to sign the law, declaring that many of its provisions violate international human rights norms, the Belarusian constitution, the Civil Code, the Housing Code and the media law. The new law imposes "harsh control on the spiritual life of each individual," a 5 November statement declared. It warns that many mechanisms to apply the law are vague, leaving decisions over which groups get registration and what activity they can undertake to the "subjective approach on the part of officials of state bodies".

The Civic Initiative expresses concern about the preamble to the law, which recognises Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Lutheranism, Judaism and Islam to varying extents as historical faiths. "The preamble to the law practically gives officials a direct indication as to which confessions enjoy priority rights to develop and which do not." Given that the new law criminalises unregistered religious activity, the group is worried about religious communities that fail to get registration or refuse to apply for it. "Special fear is aroused by the situation for groups of citizens who systematically confess a religion together and for one reason or another do not want to attain juridical status: in accordance with provisions of the new law citizens can be brought to administrative responsibility for such activity."

The Civic Initiative complains that registration will become more difficult and said officials would use their powers "to restrict by force the development of denominations".

The Orthodox chief rabbi has expressed some concern about provisions of the new law, although he believes the Orthodox Jewish community will largely be unaffected. "I don't see a lot of problems for our community," Sender Uritsky told Keston from Minsk on 4 November, "but other faiths will suffer." He said he was "not comfortable" about the fact that the Orthodox Church is recognised as the "main faith". He was also concerned that, given the ban on unregistered religious activity and the stricter registration criteria which now require 20 adult citizen founders for each community, some smaller Jewish communities will be rendered illegal. "It will be a problem to register newer communities. This is an important issue for us."

Rabbi Uritsky claimed that the Orthodox Jewish community has good relations with the government. "Officials of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs promised us that they won't close any of our communities that already have registration," he reported. Keston is unaware of similar guarantees being given to other religious communities that they will be exempt from the full rigour of the law. Rabbi Uritsky claimed that the Orthodox Jews have not faced problems during official censorship of their publications so far and did not expect that to change. "We haven't suffered from this because they know who we are."

However, as an Israeli citizen Rabbi Uritsky was concerned about the provision banning foreign citizens from leading religious organisations (although this provision was also present in the old law). "I'm one of the leaders of our Union of Jewish Religious Communities. It is a little bit contradictory, but we have been promised there will be no change, though this is doubtful in law."

Fears among religious minorities and human rights activists within Belarus were echoed by the US State Department, which said it "deplores" Lukashenko's decision to sign the law. "We join the European Union and members of many faiths in our opposition to this law, which appears intended primarily to hinder and prevent the activities of religious groups that the Lukashenko regime considers 'non-traditional' faiths," deputy spokesman Philip Reeker declared in a 1 November statement. "The law, however, also places unacceptable restrictions on all faiths in some measure&ldots;"

A 31 October statement from the presidential press service announcing that Lukashenko had signed the law claimed that the president had "thoroughly studied the law", as well as opinions on it from state bodies, research institutes, religious organisations and the media. In a curious phrase, it declared that the law "represents a balanced legal basis to ensure that the freedom of every person individually should be in harmony with the interests of society as a whole," thereby admitting - in defiance of international human rights commitments - that the basic human right to religious freedom was in his view subject to societal approval. (Keston has already learnt of Protestant and other communities being denied registration after officials claimed a new church would provoke public opposition.)

"This law is directed at the creation of the necessary conditions for the activity of registered religious organisations," the statement admitted in a pointed denial of the rights of unregistered religious groups, "for the inadmissibility of religious expansion in the Republic of Belarus and the development in our country of destructive sects and occultism." Lukashenko did not reveal why he believed the state had the duty to prevent various religious groups from expanding their activity.

The statement dismissed complaints about the new law from "Protestant organisations", the Adventists and "a few others", describing it as "highly noticeable" that the complaints were written "according to one template". He noted that many of the complaints had focused on the introduction of censorship of religious literature and a "stricter approach to the issue of registration". "It is impossible not to note that the hullabaloo around this law was supported by certain political forces which were speculating on people's religious feelings."

The new law comes into force ten days after its official publication, which is expected imminently. (END)