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.
4 November 2003
Forum 18 News Service has learnt that a Belarusian government list of 16 banned religious organisations includes the British-based Ahmadiyya, who are generally considered to a sect of Islam. State officials reportedly "do not register sects of Christianity or Islam as there will be conflicts between them," Forum 18 was told. Even if a group has state registration, it can still encounter state opposition such as that experienced by the charismatic Full Gospel Association. The Association has been officially classed as a "neo-mystical religious-political destructive sect" whose growth poses "a significant threat to the individual, society and state" of Belarus.
31 October 2003
Although the Reformed Church's history in Belarus goes back to the 16th century, the authors of the 2002 religion law "forgot about the Calvinists", the presbyter of Minsk's present-day Reformed Church has told Forum 18 News Service. The Evangelical Lutheran Church is the only Protestant body described as "inseparable from the common history of the people of Belarus" in the 2002 religion law. The Minsk Reformed Church managed to hold an international conference to mark this year's 450th anniversary of the Reformation in Belarus, but faced much official obstruction. Following the conference, the Reformed Church has been told it needs to obtain official permission to hold worship services, but has yet to received any response to requests. Forced to find another location for services, the community has effectively been prevented from advertising them. The presbyter told Forum 18 "We cannot say that this Church exists, preaches Jesus Christ and doesn't bite."
30 October 2003
The Greek Catholic Church has no registered central body in Belarus under the 2002 religion law, so officially its two monasteries "do not exist", Forum 18 News Service has been told. Under the same law, the church's 15 registered parishes are not considered to have any legal relationship with each other. Also, because the church's centre is not in Belarus but in the Vatican, the law prevents central registration and the current head of the church being its head, because he is not a Belarusian citizen. Even if the Greek Catholics had a registered central body, its monasteries still could not legally exist because they do not have the legal minimum number of fully professed monks. The local state official commented to Forum 18 that only fully professed monks could legally count because "Novices might leave at any moment, or their mummies could come and take them home".
13 October 2003
As last year's religion law confines the activity of a religious organisation to a defined area (often a single village, town or region of the country), Orthodox, Baptist, Pentecostal and Catholic leaders are among those to have expressed their concern. The law's provisions inevitably "make it difficult to organise new churches", Baptist pastor Viktor Zdanevich complained to Forum 18 News Service. As an autonomously registered congregation, his church is banned from creating a mission. The chairman of a Greek Catholic parish council in Polotsk, Mikola Sharakh, noted that the law did not allow for development and effectively created a "reservation" for the church. One Roman Catholic agreed, telling Forum 18: "People might argue that the churches are open, but what freedom is that? It is a silhouette."
13 October 2003
With last year's religion law criminalising "the attraction of minors to religious organisations and also the teaching of religion to them against their will or without the agreement of their parents or guardians", Forum 18 News Service has learnt that local authorities are demanding that religious organisations supply the names and dates of birth of all their Sunday school children. "We believe this to be a violation of believers' rights," complained Pastor Pavel Firisyuk of Salvation Baptist Church, "as well as of Christ's commandment: 'Let the little children come to me.'" However, State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs vice-chairman Vladimir Lameko defended the move, telling the Baptists only that officials should have explained better why they needed the information.