Belarusian Hindus go on hunger strike after being arrested during outdoor service

MINSK, Belarus - Twelve Hindus from Belarus began a hunger strike on Sunday to protest against what they said was increasing state persecution after this former Soviet republic's lower house of parliament passed a strict new bill on religion.

The seven men and five women were among 17 arrested Saturday evening while singing Hindu songs and hymns in a Belarusian park, said Tatyana Akadanova, who was also arrested but released because she had small children with her.

They were accused of holding an unsanctioned procession and meeting, Akadanova said.

She said the arrest was trigged by a bill passed late last month that prohibits churches will less than 20 years' presence in Belarus from publishing literature or establishing missions and bans organized prayer by denominations with less than 20 Belarus citizens as members.

The bill, which still has to be passed by the upper house of parliament and signed by President Alexander Lukashenko, also enshrines the Russian Orthodox Church's dominant role in the country.

"Persecution has already begun," said Akadanova, adding that the group had earlier been refused permission to officially register and denied the use of a hall to hold their religious services.

The 12 Hindus, all citizens of Belarus, began their hunger strike while waiting in a police processing facility, where they were being held until their appearance in court. Officials at the processing center confirmed that the group had begun a hunger strike, and said that a court hearing would be held soon.

Akadanova warned that if the new bill is signed into law then many Hindus "will be forced to leave the country because of persecution by authorities."

The Russian Orthodox Church, which had supported the bill, complains in Belarus and Russia that other religions are poaching converts from people who historically would have been Orthodox believers.