Belarus president signs restrictive religions law

MINSK, Belarus - President Alexander Lukashenko signed a law Thursday that enshrines the Russian Orthodox Church's dominance in Belarus and restricts the activities of smaller religious groups.

Lukashenko's office released a statement saying the law, which immediately drew criticism from minority religious communities, "is aimed to prevent religious expansion of destructive sects and occultism."

Human rights advocates have said the law s discriminatory, and the Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom in former communist countries, has called it "the most repressive religion law in Europe."

The law 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.

"This law returns the Protestants of Belarus to a time when Protestant churches were forced to act illegally," said Nikolai Sinkovets, bishop of the Evangelist Christian Baptist church.

Chief Rabbi Sender Uritsky also criticized the law, saying it could create serious problems for Jews in the former Soviet republic.

A coalition of minority denominations had appealed to Lukashenko to veto the measure after it was passed by parliament.

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.