Upper house of Belarusian parliament approves broad restrictions on religion

MINSK, Belarus - Belarus' upper house of parliament gave overwhelming approval Wednesday to a bill on religion that would severely restrict the activities of smaller denominations and enshrine the Russian Orthodox Church's dominant position in the country.

The upper house of parliament passed the bill 46-2. Four lawmakers present at the session did not vote. The government-sponsored bill is expected to be signed into law by President Alexander Lukashenko within 10 days.

The bill, which human rights advocates say is discriminatory, bans organized prayer by religious communities of fewer than 20 citizens and prohibits religions that have been in Belarus for less than 20 years from publishing literature or setting up missions. The Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom in former communist countries, called it "the most repressive religion law in Europe."

"Religious peace in our country is very shaky. If this law if passed, interfaith conflicts await Belarus," said Yadviga Grigorovich, the only lawmaker to speak out against the bill in debate.

Stanislav Buko, chairman of the government's Committee on Religion and Ethnicity, denied the bill was discriminatory and said its purpose was to guard against the spread of dangerous cults.

"The law takes into account the traditions of Belarus and envisions a defense against neo-cults and destructive sects," he said.

Dina Shavtsova, a lawyer for the Union of Christians of the Whole Gospel, said her organization will be forced to shut down under the law.

"We are guilty only of not attending a Russian Orthodox church," Shavtsova said.

The bill topped the agenda Wednesday in the upper house, which had its first session after the summer break Wednesday. The lower house approved the bill in June.

Lukashenko, who refers to himself as "a Russian Orthodox atheist," has cracked down on dissent and media freedom in Belarus, making him an outcast in the West. He has expressed strong nostalgia for the Soviet Union, and has maintained or revived many communist-era institutions.