Belarus adopts religion law despite criticism by minority faiths

MINSK, Belarus - The Belarusian parliament on Thursday adopted a law on religion that enshrines the Russian Orthodox Church's dominant role and that sharply limits activities of religions that have been in Belarus less than 20 years.

Critics said the law could encourage tension between faiths and that it was a step backward for the former Soviet republic.

The parliament on Wednesday had put off the second and final reading of the bill to its fall session, but on Thursday morning parliamentary leaders gathered enough signatures to put it on the day's agenda. It passed by a vote of 85-2.

"There was unprecedented pressure on the deputies," said lawmaker Olga Abramova, who walked out of the session during the vote. She said Metropolitan Filaret, the Russian Orthodox Church's leader in Belarus, had invited some deputies to the bishopric and shown them a film "Expansion" that "showed Protestant churches in a negative way."

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

"The law returns society to a totalitarian order not far from what had been previously, establishing the monopoly of one world-view ... and in fact declares war by the state on national and religious minorities," said a statement signed by scores of leaders of protesting organizations. It "throws the country 80 years back, to Stalinist times."

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is an open admirer of the Soviet Union and under his rule the country has retained many Soviet-style control that some other former republics have abandoned.

The law, whose preamble sets out the Orthodox Church's "dominant role," bans organized prayer by religious communities of less than 20 citizens and prohibits religions that have been in Belarus for less than 20 years from publishing literature or setting up missions.

These provisions could lead to "conflicts between religious confessions in Belarus," Abramova said.

The U.S. Embassy in Belarus also criticized the measure this week.