Belarus tightens religious curbs

A Draconian new law has ‘clamped down on everything’
The New York Times, via International Herald Tribune, Nov. 25 ,2002
Michael Wines

MINSK, Belarus – In the last four months, Tatyana and Sergei Akadanovy have been arrested twice, sent to jail for 10 days and fined more than $1,000, an unimaginable sum in impoverished Belarus.

An apartment they help rent has been broken into and vandalized. She has been severely beaten on the steps of their apartment, a fate that separately befell six friends, and the police have issued warnings that the Akadanovys and their friends are all criminals who should be avoided.

In fact, the police may be right: The Akadanovys and their friends are Hindus. And in Belarus, Hindus who gather together in their gods’ names are, by definition, almost always in violation of the law.

Belarus, which underwent more than its share of religious repression under Soviet rule, now has a new religion law, “On the Freedom of Confessions and Religious Organizations.” And even before it fully takes effect, persecution of Hindus and people of other faiths not approved by the government – and some that are – has been ratcheted sharply up.

The effect is to hamstring any rivals to the Belarussian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, which helped draft the new law and is a pillar of support for the autocratic government of President Alexander Lukashenko.

A Belarussian chapel of the Russian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which has split from the main Russian Orthodox faith, was bulldozed in August. Several Minsk branches of the Full Gospel Pentecostal Church, an evangelical Protestant faith that is among the largest minority religions here, were notified in September that their prayer services were illegal.

The city’s Hare Krishna temple received the same notice. In October, the head of the New Life Protestant Church was summoned to a Minsk district administration office and told that unspecified complaints had been filed against his church.

All that and more preceded the new law, which Lukashenko signed on Oct. 31 and which took effect Nov. 16. Religious and human rights officials say that the law fits a pattern of repression they trace back at least three years, and that even mainstream faiths have been targets.

“There’s been a web of restrictions and control of religious communities in the last few years,” Felix Corley, the editor of the London-based Keston Institute’s news service and an expert on religion in Belarus, said in a telephone interview. “You can’t have outdoor events. You can’t build a church without permission from the authorities, and you can’t get permission. This new law has really codified and clamped down on everything.”

The law has 40 articles of bewildering complexity, but at its root, it outlaws regular meetings of worshipers of any faith not registered with the state, and strictly limits the places where even registered faiths can hold services.

Registering is a daunting task: No individual church may have fewer than 20 members. Any organized faith must have at least 10 churches and be able to prove that it had a church in Belarus before 1982 – a time of religious repression under the Soviet Union.

That merely begins to describe the law’s restrictions, which govern church publications, visits by foreign priests, religious schools, charities and a welter of other activities.

The State Department and the European Union, which last week denied Lukashenko a visa because of Belarus’s rights record, have said the law violates international principles of religious freedom.

The bill’s authors, on the other hand, say the Russian Orthodox faith is so intimately woven into Belarussian culture that the state is obligated to protect its leading role from dangerous sects, which, they say, are the law’s targets.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday November 25, 2002.
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