Nov 04, 2002 03:00 AM EST

As expected, President Aleksandr Lukashenko yesterday signed Europe's "most restrictive religious law," according to Keston News Service (KNS). Last month, the nation's parliament overwhelmingly approved the bill that severely restricts the activities of smaller denominations and establish the Russian Orthodox Church's dominant position in the country. The bill prohibits organized prayer by religious communities of fewer than 20 citizens and bans religions that have been in Belarus for less than 20 years from publishing literature or setting up missions. Many believe the law will force Christians underground because the new legislation bans unregistered religious activity. Pastor Lyavon Lipen of Minsk's registered Reformed Church told KNS that the move is "highly discriminatory" and warned that "active believers" could soon be imprisoned. "Any attempt to read the Bible with people will be punished by fines," said Lipen, noting that "it may go further than that." Bishop Sergei Khomich, leader of the Pentecostal Union, the second largest religious group with registered communities, added: "There is nothing we can do about it, although we believe it is undemocratic and violates the constitution." Other Protestant leaders echoed Khomich's concerns. "The law is bad, of course," Bishop Nikolai Sinkovets, head of the Baptist Union, told KNS. "We are worried. We will have to think now what we can do. We have already made our views known to the government, and we'll have to see how the new law is implemented." 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.

By Albert H. Lee