Belarus’ New Laws Restrict Religious Meetings

Dec 17, 2002 08:28 AM EST

The Belarus government’s Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs have declared that mass religious meetings of more than 100 people requires the approval of state and a gathering of more than 10 needs official permission, otherwise it will be an illegal act.

The Belarus’ senior religious affairs official Minsk Alla Ryabitseva told the religious leaders in Frunze district of the decision by the committee and explained to them about the new provisions which entered into force on Nov. 16. Ryabitseva told the leaders that all religious meetings in private homes now require permission from officials because private homes are not designed for such purposes.

Ryabitseva said she had only held meetings with the religious leaders in Frunze district; she also needs to arrange additional meetings with other administration leaders in other districts of the city and also with religious leaders if necessary. When asked of her declaration without prior permission, Ryabitseva said to read the law.

Dina Shavtsova, a Minsk-based lawyer, explained, "The uncertainty surrounding the norms of the religion law allows local officials to give their own interpretation of the law, which in certain situations leads to the direct limitation of the rights of citizens."

Shavtsova mentioned that in Article 25 of the law, local officials would have the power to restrict the believer’s right to meat for worship arbitrarily. She also pointed out that the restriction on religious meetings in private home violates Article 31 of the nation’s constitution, which states the right to confess a faith individually or with others.

"Thanks to Ryabitseva's efforts, a whole range of evangelical churches which don't have their own church buildings have been deprived of the right to rent halls in Minsk," Shavtsova noted. "They can now only meet in home groups, though even this possibility is now dependent on the whims of one or another bureaucrat."

Georgi Vyazovsky, pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Minsk, said that officials in region of Gatovo and Krupki had already summoned religious leaders individually to explain about the new law. During a meeting, a Krupki official showed his colleague a copy of “V nachale,” a magazine which Vyazovsky’s church had published and criticized on its view on icons. "We have not even sent out the copies yet, so they must have got them from the printing house," Vyazovsky said. "You see they have all our activity under control." He said officials had asked his colleague why they are so strongly against the Orthodox Church.

Bishop Sergei Khomich, the head of the Pentecostal Union of more than 490 registered communities in the country, said that none of his pastors were summoned to such meeting. He said that he heard that the leaders will be invited to the meetings later in the future. In other regions, religious leaders did not learn of similar meetings being conducted as well.

The Orthodox Church expressed its support for the new restrictive law. At a meeting between the Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in Minsk, the leader of the Orthodox Church praised the new law. The church also put forth a proposal for a separate agreement between the Orthodox Church and the state.

"It is a very interesting proposal and I do support the initiative to sign an agreement between the state and the church," Lukashenka responded in remarks shown on Belarusian television the same day. "This agreement will set forth the forms, methods and areas of our activities and the spheres where we will cooperate. I believe that we should pass a set of programs as a follow-up to this agreement."

By Tony C.