Minority denominations ask Lukashenko to veto restrictive religion law

MINSK, Belarus - A coalition of minority denominations on Thursday appealed to President Alexander Lukashenko to veto a measure passed by parliament that would enshrine the Russian Orthodox Church's dominant position and eseverely restrict the activities of smaller religious groups.

The appeal, in a letter sent to the presidential administration, came a day after the measure received overwhelming approval in the upper house of the Belarusian parliament.

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, has called it "the most repressive religion law in Europe."

"Such a law, unfortunately, returns our country to the sad Soviet tradition," said the appeal to Lukashenko.

The coalition that sent the appeal includes Jews, adherents to several Protestant denominations, Greek Catholics and Krishnas.

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.