New Belarus Religion Law 'Repressive,' Watchdog Group Says

A religious freedom watchdog group is calling on the Bush administration to speak out against religious persecution in Belarus, and to condemn a new law the group says codifies the persecution of a wide variety of faiths in the former Soviet republic.

"It is certainly Europe's worst religious repressor, and now it has Europe's most repressive religious law," said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House in Washington.

Under the law, all unregistered religious activities by organized groups and all religious communities with fewer than 20 members will become illegal, Shea charged.

Religious activity in private homes will be sharply curtailed, and religious communities that do not have a registered umbrella body will no longer be able to invite foreign citizens for religious work or to teach religion in the country, she said.

In addition to these sweeping new restrictions, all religious organizations will have to undergo compulsory re-registration within the next two years, and some face the threat of not being renewed.

Under the new law, the Orthodox Church has a "determining role" in Belarus. Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, and Islam, however, are noted as "traditional" faiths.

The new law also drew fire from Capitol Hill.

"This repressive legislation, targeting minority religions, clearly violates internationally accepted human rights standards," said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Smith spoke on the occasion of passage of the law last month.

In August, the government of Alexander Lukashenko shocked the international community when it sent bulldozers to demolish a newly constructed church as parishioners were preparing for its consecration.

Officials acted because the church belonged to the Belarusian Autocephalous Church, a Christian denomination separate from the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church favored by the Lukashenko regime, Shea and others said.

"Since Lukashenko has led Belarus to become a pariah state in the heart of Europe, nothing he does surprises me anymore," Smith said in August.

Hindus have been fined for meditating; Baptists have been fined for singing hymns; Protestants are prohibited from purchasing property. After decades of repression, the Catholic Church has a shortage of native priests and now it faces a ban on foreign priests, Shea said.

Jews have suffered firebomb attacks on synagogues and other properties, and a government-publishing house recently published "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which has been widely condemned as anti-Semitic, she said.

"Belarus is the one state that has emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union with its repressive mechanisms intact, including its KGB," Shea said.

Smith has introduced the Belarus Democracy Act of 2002 (HR 5056) to promote democratic development, human rights and the rule of law in Belarus.

The bipartisan measure would authorize an increase in assistance in democracy building activities and encourages free parliamentary elections. It would also impose sanctions against the Lukashenko regime, including denying high-ranking government officials entry to the United States.

Officials at the Embassy of Belarus in Washington declined interview requests for this article. An official statement sent to stressed, however, that Belarus pays close attention to ensuring freedom of religion in the country.

"We perceive clearly that the freedom to choose your own way to God is the inherent right of an individual," the statement said. Churches officially registered in Belarus may hold public worship and citizens of the country are free to participate, it said.

The statement refuted charges that the government favors the Russian Orthodox Church over others, including with financial contributions, as "ungrounded."

"The government assigns finances only for maintenance of religious buildings protected by the state and recognized officially as memorials of history and culture," the statement said.

The only religious organizations not eligible for state registration are those whose dogma and religious practice are either directed against the sovereignty of Belarus and its constitutional system, or those that can impede the citizens' ability to honor their state and family commitments, or do harm to their health and morality, the statement said.

Registration in Belarus is not granted to religious and pseudo-religious groups not recognized in most European countries, including groups like Aum Shinri Kyo, the Family of Love, The Last Commandment Church, Great White Brotherhood and Satanists, the statement said.

Criminal proceedings have been instigated in connection with acts of arson on a synagogue in 2000, and law enforcement agencies are continuing to search for perpetrators, the statement said.

In addition, "there is no ban in Belarus for teaching religion in recreation camps run by religious organizations," it said.

Belarus Reportedly Involved in Arms Transfers

In an address at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called Belarus "a black hole of authoritarianism" at the center of Europe.

"Alexander Lukashenko's Belarus cannot long survive in a world where the United States and Russia enjoy a strategic partnership and the United States is serious about its commitment to end outlaw regimes whose conduct threatens us," McCain said.

Under Lukashenko's rule, Belarus reportedly has sold weapons to Iraq, Iran, Libya and Sudan, he said.

There are "repeated reports from a variety of credible sources that Belarus is involved in arms transfers to states or groups that support terrorism, and in the military training of individuals associated with those states," McCain said, quoting the U.S. State Department.

Lukashenko is widely regarded as Europe's last dictator. On Friday, the Czech Republic refused to issue Lukashenko a visa to attend this week's NATO summit in Prague, saying his dictatorial style made him persona non grata.