Protestants in Belarus pray against what they call discriminatory religion bill

MINSK, Belarus - Protestants across Belarus prayed Sunday against a draft law on religion that minorities fear could become a tool for government persecution if it is passed by the ex-Soviet republic's parliament.

The bill, which received parliament's preliminary approval on May 31, would ban organized prayer except by registered religious communities of at least 20 Belarusian citizens and would prohibit religions that have existed in the country less than 20 years from publishing literature or setting up missions. It would also require government approval for all religious publications before distribution.

Worshippers in the country's 750 Protestant congregations prayed Sunday for parliament to reject the bill, said Ales Velichko, spokesman for the Union of Evangelical Christians. He said 30 to 40 percent of Belarus' Protestant congregations would not be able to reregister under the law, since they have less than 20 people.

A coalition of religious minorities, including Protestants, Muslims and Jews, has called for postponing the second vote on the bill, set for later this month, and for a public discussion on the issue. They say the bill would strengthen the dominating position of the Russian Orthodox Church at the expense of other faiths.

"The passage of this law will make the domination of the Russian Orthodox Church permanent in Belarus and start the wheels of religious genocide turning," Jewish community leader Nikolai Khaskin said.

Lawmaker Sergei Kostyan, one of the bill's backers, said the law was necessary "to put up a barrier against all these Western preachers who just creep into Belarus and discredit our Slavic values."

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has cracked down on dissent and retained Soviet-style controls on the economy, has called himself "a Russian Orthodox atheist."