Belarus parliament puts off second reading of controversial religion law

MINSK, Belarus - The parliament of Belarus postponed Wednesday the second reading of a controversial religion law amid fears that criticism against it by minority faiths could lead to protests in the country.

The law will now be taken up at the next parliament session in the fall, parliament speaker Vadim Popov said.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Belarus had criticized the proposed law, which 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.

A former head of the KGB, parliament deputy Vladimir Egorov, told deputies of a report prepared by the intelligence agency acknowledging the potential fallout of passing the bill.

"Approving this law would lead to unhappiness among Protestants that would develop into actions of protest," he said.

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 dominant position of the Russian Orthodox Church at the expense of other faiths.

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."

The bill's preamble would set 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."

Ales Velichko, spokesman for a group working against the law, said he hopes that the lawmakers will now agree to the formation of a commission that will discuss the bill with members of various faiths.