9 February 2004
Forum 18 News Service has definitively found that close supervision of religious life in Belarus by local officials is an integral part of current central policy. It is not either a dwindling vestige of Soviet practice or the result of individual arbitrariness. The evidence for this is contained in a letter which Forum 18 has seen from the vice-chairman of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, Vladimir Lameko. The letter sharply criticises lower-level state officials for not diligently monitoring religious communities.
3 February 2004
Forum 18 News Service has learnt of three separate incidents in which unregistered Baptist pastors have been fined for their work. All three were fined for "the creation and leadership of a religious organisation without registering its charter (statutes) in accordance with established procedure," which is punishable under the Belarusian administrative offences code. A spokeswoman for the pastors' Moscow-based union remarked to Forum 18 that the incidents "seem to be to do with" the 2002 Belarusian religion law, which outlaws systematic unregistered religious gatherings.
29 January 2004
Yakov Gutman, who heads the World Association of Belarusian Jewry, has accused President Aleksandr Lukashenko of "personal responsibility for the destruction of Jewish holy sites" in Belarus. Gutman was subsequently detained by police and hospitalised with a suspected heart attack, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. He claims that Belarusian authorities permitted the demolition of a former synagogue to build an elite housing complex, that the construction of a multi-storey car park will prevent the reconstruction of a sixteenth-century stone synagogue demolished in the late 1960s, and that Jewish cemeteries have been destroyed by two local authorities in recent years. Meanwhile, only 9 out of 92 historical synagogues in Belarus have been returned to believers since 1991, and the new 2002 religion law states that religious organisations do not have priority in cases when a former worship building is currently used for culture or sport. Yakov Dorn, Chairman of the Judaic Religious Association in Belarus, told Forum 18 that "most former synagogues come into that category - so the authorities usually refuse our requests and refer to that provision."
27 January 2004
Authorities in Belarus have been briefly detaining Krishna devotees two or three times a week for distributing religious literature, as well as obstructing literature distribution in other ways, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Separately, the Society for Krishna Consciousness in Belarus has asked the UN Human Rights Committee to investigate the legality of the states' refusal to register the organisation under the previous religion law. Vasili Marchenko, the official in charge of religious affairs in Brest region, told Forum 18 that a local Hare Krishna community had not been denied re-registration under the new religion law, and that he had not received any such application. This is disputed by a devotee, who told Forum 18 that the community's re-registration documents had been returned without explanation. In October 1997, the Belarusian State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs' Expert Council described the Minsk Society for Krishna Consciousness as a "destructive totalitarian sect infringing personality, health, citizens' rights and national security."
12 December 2003
The Pentecostal Church in Kobrin, near Brest in south western Belarus, has told Forum 18 News Service that it will continue to meet for worship – even though their Pastor was yesterday (11 December) fined after police attended the unregistered church's worship. Pastor Nikolai Rodkovich told Forum 18 that "we have no intention of halting our services. We're ready for anything." Under the harsh new religion law, which came into force in November 2002, unregistered religious activity is illegal. But Pastor Rodkovich's fine is the first fine known to Forum 18 since this summer. The state official in charge of religious affairs in Brest region has declined to discuss with Forum 18 why religious communities cannot function without registration.
2 December 2003
In this personal commentary contributed to Forum 18 News Service www.forum18.org , Arie de Pater, director of Jubilee Campaign NL, argues that the European Union (EU) should pay greater attention to restrictions on religious freedom in many of the ten states which will join the EU in May 2004 (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia & Slovenia) and in states that hope to join any further expansion (Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania & Turkey potentially due from 2007). Drawing on a report on religious freedom in the candidate countries, compiled by Jubilee Campaign NL with the assistance of Forum 18 and others, published today (2 December 2003), he notes that even in the first batch of accession countries, criticism of religious law and practice can be levelled at the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia. He questions why the European Commission's 2003 Comprehensive Regular Report makes no criticism of Bulgaria's new denominations act, which has been sharply criticised in Bulgaria and abroad.
24 November 2003
In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Belarus, Forum 18 News Service notes the various ways in which the Belarusian state limits religious freedom. These include denial of state registration, breaking up home worship meetings, restrictions on religious events held in public, refusal of permission to build, purchase or reclaim premises, and restrictions on the right to invite foreigners for religious work. Although there is a strong Soviet-era tradition of state hostility towards religion in Belarus, government officials currently seem willing to give at least symbolic support for the Belarusian Orthodox Church if this is thought to serve the government's geopolitical interests.
18 November 2003
Forum 18 News Service has found indications that the influence of Soviet-era atheist ideology on Belarus remains strong. Many of the officials who worked for the Soviet-era Council for Religious Affairs reportedly continue to staff the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, which has a far more extensive network of officials than similar bodies in Russia. Also, texts used for instruction in state education maintain, for example, that "Religion's promises to give a person everything that he seeks in it are but illusion and deception." and that "no religion was accorded any preference or subjected to any form of oppression" in Belarus after 1918. Pentecostal Assistant Bishop Naum Sakhanchuk has told Forum 18 that the current repression of non-Orthodox confessions is much more closely connected with this atheist legacy than with state support for the Belarusian Orthodox Church. An anonymous Orthodox source agreed, commenting to Forum 18 that the 2002 religion law was not in fact designed to benefit the Patriarchate. "Now the atheists say it is against sects, but they are waiting for the day when they can persecute everybody."
13 November 2003
President Aleksandr Lukashenko has implied that Belarus is an Orthodox nation. However this is strongly disputed by those who point to the long history and present existence on Belarusian territory of other confessions. It has been suggested to Forum 18 News Service by an anonymous Orthodox source that the reason for the President's claim is that he "can't reject religion outright as it is too significant, so he needs to be able to rely on it." So, "he takes the first thing which comes to hand and is the largest – the Orthodox Church – not because he is Orthodox or because he cares about the Church but only because of that." An anonymous Protestant source agreed that politicians in Belarus were trying to use the Orthodox Church for political purposes.
11 November 2003
A Belarusian religious affairs official has told Forum 18 News Service that Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam, Judaism and Lutheranism are "clearly defined as traditional religions" by the republic's new law on religion and so receive state support. However, the law does not call these confessions "traditional," but describes the Orthodox Church as "playing the defining role in the state traditions of the Belarusian people." The official also said that a religious organisation given access to a school "will be Orthodox, Catholic or Lutheran and not New Apostolic, Krishnaite or Baha'i." Catholic representatives, however, have criticised the new law as it contains no provision for religious education in state schools. While the Belarusian Orthodox Church's access to state institutions appears to vary from region to region, it does receive state financial aid, unlike other confessions. A Belarusian Orthodox spokesman im[plied that this was justified since Protestants build churches "with western money." Forum 18 found little evidence of significant contact between western churches and Belarusian Protestants, however.
7 November 2003
Belarusian officials had a detailed plan for re-registering religious organisations under the 2002 religion law's two-year compulsory re-registration period, however they have "hardly re-registered anyone, not even the Orthodox", Forum 18 News Service has been told by a reliable source. It has been suggested to Forum 18 that officials, realising that the law "has not entirely been a success," are trying to water down the re-registration requirements. One source, stressing that re-registration is not a guarantee of the right to worship freely, has told Forum 18 that Belarusian authorities are keen to re-register as many religious organisations as possible so as to 'reassure the West by saying: "Just look how many organisations we have re-registered".'
6 November 2003
Non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox Christian communities can only gain Belarusian state registration if they have the approval of a local Moscow Patriarchate bishop, a government official has told Forum 18 News Service. Also, a church official told Forum 18 that the Belarusian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) has registered its title as a brand name "so that no other organisation can register with that name." The 2002 law on religion says that registration is compulsory, but does not require Orthodox applications to have the approval of a Moscow Patriarchate bishop. This non-legal, state-enforced requirement restricts the Russian True Orthodox Church, which comes under the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox (People's) Church and catacomb True Orthodox communities.