New Belarus Law Codifies Rising Religious Repression

MINSK, Belarus, — In the last four months, Tatyana and Sergei Akadanovy have been arrested twice, sent to jail for 10 days and fined more than $1,000, an unimaginable sum in impoverished Belarus.

An apartment they help rent has been broken into and vandalized. Mrs. Akadanova has been severely beaten on the steps of their apartment, a fate that separately befell six friends, and the police have issued warnings that the Akadanovys and their friends are all criminals who should be avoided.

In fact, the police may be right: the Akadanovys and their friends are Hindus. And in Belarus, Hindus who gather together in their gods' names are, by definition, almost always in violation of the law.

Belarus, which underwent more than its share of religious repression under Soviet rule, now has a new religion law, "About the Freedom of Confessions and Religious Organizations." And even before it fully takes effect, persecution of Hindus and people of other faiths not approved by the government — and some that are — has been ratcheted sharply up.

The effect is to hamstring any rivals to the Belarus branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, which helped draft the new law and is a pillar of support for the autocratic government of President Aleksandr Lukashenko.

A western Belarus chapel of the Russian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which has split from the main Orthodox faith, was bulldozed in August. Several Minsk branches of the Full Gospel Pentacostal Church, an evangelical Protestant faith that is among the largest minority religions here, were notified in September that their prayer services were illegal. The city's Hare Krishna temple received the same notice. In October the head of the New Life Protestant Church was summoned to a Minsk district administration office and told that unspecified complaints had been filed against his church.

All that and more preceded the new law, which Mr. Lukashenko signed on Oct. 31 and which took effect a week ago. Religious and human rights officials say that the law fits a pattern of repression they trace back at least three years, and that even mainstream faiths have been targets.

"There's been a web of restrictions and control of religious communities in the last few years," Felix Corley, editor of the London-based Keston Institute's news service and an expert on religious trends in Belarus, said in a telephone interview. "You can't have outdoor events. You can't build a church without permission from the authorities, and you can't get permission. This new law has really codified and clamped down on everything."

The law has 40 articles of bewildering complexity, but at its root, it outlaws regular meetings of worshipers of any faith not registered with the state, and strictly limits the places where even registered faiths can hold services.

Registering is a daunting task: no individual church may have fewer than 20 members. Any organized faith must have at least 10 churches and be able to prove that it had a church in Belarus before 1982 — a time of religious repression under the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov.

That merely begins to describe the law's restrictions, which govern church publications, visits by foreign priests, religious schools, charities and a welter of other activities.

The State Department and the European Union, which last week denied Mr. Lukashenko a visa because of Belarus's rights record, have said the law violates international principles of religious freedom.

The bill's authors, on the other hand, say the Russian Orthodox faith is so intimately woven into Belarussian culture that the state is obligated to protect its leading role from dangerous sects — which, they insist, are the legislation's true targets.

The state legally recognizes 26 faiths, but while a preamble to the new law mentions Judaism, Catholicism, Lutheranism and Islam, it singles out the Orthodox religion as playing "a determining role" in national culture and government.

"This law is not directed against any religious minority, but at protection of the rights of majority citizens," said Andrei I. Alezhko, who played a major role in writing it. Mr. Alezhko, a legal adviser to Metropolitan Filaret, the Belarus head of the Russian Orthodox Church, describes himself as the head of an anticult human rights group called Ozon.

"All religions are equal before the law," said Vladimir B. Lameko, the vice chairman of the Belarus Parliament's committee for religious affairs, although "that does not mean that they are as large when compared with each other."

But in Borovlyany, a prosperous village of brick homes some 20 minutes outside Minsk, Pastor Boris Cheroglaz scoffed at the notion of religious equality here. In 1999, his outpost of the Full Gospel Pentacostal Church had 1,000 members. Since then it has been driven from one building where it held services and is in danger of losing another. It has also lost 400 worshipers, 300 in the last year alone.

Most, he said, stopped attending services for fear of government reprisal. "People were just afraid, scared because the memories were still fresh from the time when people were persecuted for their beliefs," he said.

The Borovlyany church is anything but alone in its predicament. There are more than 450 registered Pentacostal churches in Belarus, which makes Pentecostalism perhaps the nation's second-largest faith. Another 200 are unregistered; it is not uncommon for registrations to be rejected on technical grounds.

Then again, it could be worse. The Akadanovys' 150-member Hindu community, the Light of Kalyasa, has repeatedly been denied registration on technical grounds. Most recently, the couple said, officials refused even to provide registration papers. An effort to summon Hindu leaders to a meeting in a Minsk park last July collapsed when the police arrested the Akadanovys and 13 other worshipers at the park's entrance, accusing them of staging an illegal demonstration. A month later, the apartment they used as a temple was broken into and ransacked; when the couple and others carried banners in a march protesting their treatment, they were arrested again.

Mrs. Akadanova, 34, suffered a concussion after she was beaten outside the couple's flat in early September. After 10 days in prison for her role in the July meeting, she faces a 15-day sentence if she cannot pay a 1.5 million ruble fine — the rough equivalent of $1,000 — for staging the protest in August.

"I was already in this jail once," she said in an interview in a Minsk restaurant. "It's torture."

Rather than discouraging believers, however, the government's actions are simply driving Hindus underground, the Akadanovys said. "Some of them pretend to be a group of psychologists so they can meet and meditate," Mrs. Akadanova said. "But the authorities already know about us, so we cannot hide and conceal our activities. And we do not know what the next sanctions will be against us. We can't gather, even at private apartments. But we cannot give up our beliefs."