Coalition of religious and human rights groups calls on Belarus lawmakers to reject new religion law

MINSK, Belarus - A coalition of Jewish, Greek Catholic, Protestant, and human rights groups on Friday called on Belarus' upper house of parliament to reject a new law on religion that places strictures on small denominations and enshrines the Russian Orthodox Church's dominant role in the country.

"Practical application of this law will lead to a large number of legal disputes and will create a threat to interfaith harmony, will lead to the destabilization of civil society," the groups said in a statement.

The bill, already passed by the lower house of parliament, prohibits churches with 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 former Soviet republic's authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, does not hide the fact that he favors the Russian Orthodox Church, though he calls himself a "Russian Orthodox atheist."

Vera Stremkovskaya, head of the Center for Human Rights in Belarus, said her group is seeking to create a interconfessional council to "defuse the situation around the discriminatory law."

The Russian Orthodox Church, as well as Roman Catholic and Muslim representatives in Belarus, did not sign the Friday statement of protest about the religion law.