U.S. Embassy condemns proposed religion law in Belarus

MINSK, Belarus - The U.S. Embassy in Belarus condemned Tuesday a proposed religion law making its way through the country's parliament that critics fear will become a means for government repression of minority faiths.

The law that would allow Belarusian authorities to decide which religions are "nontraditional," would "contradict international principles of religious freedom and human rights," the embassy said in a statement issued in Russian.

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

Government approval would also be required for all religious publications before distribution.

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

A lawmaker, however, said the bill would be approved Wednesday.

"The law will be approved, because the government should regulate the activities of religious organizations in Belarus," said Valery Lipkin, head of the parliament committee that prepared the bill.

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."

Lipkin said the bill's preamble sets out the "dominant role" of the Orthodox faith, and also notes the role of other faiths — named in the text as "Judaism, Lutheran and Protestant."