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Belarus cracks down on churches with stiff restrictions on religion

08 December 2023

Alamy

The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, in the Palace of Independence, last month

The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, in the Palace of Independence, last month

LEGISLATORS in Belarus, believed to be Europe’s most repressive state, have passed a new religious law, restricting educational and missionary activity, and requiring all faith communities to reapply for legal status (News, 27 October).

“This Bill contains new modern approaches to interactive issues between the state and religious organisations,” the law’s parliamentary sponsor, Lyudmila Zdorikova, explained.

“All religious associations will have to bring their charters into compliance within a year, submitting the necessary materials to the authorities, who will decide on their re-registration or liquidation.”

In a press release after final approval of the Law on Freedom of Conscience, Ms Zdorikova said that “mutual respect for religious views” was a “constant priority of state policy”. She predicted that the new measures would assist “peace, stability, prosperity, and understanding” across her country.

A prominent Roman Catholic, Artiom Tkaczuk, a social worker now living in neighbouring Poland, warned, however, that the curbs would drastically affect religious communities, giving officials stronger powers to ban those deemed to violate loosely defined legal conditions.

“If it’s rigorously applied, our own Church will face many new problems — particularly through having to re-register all its parishes,” he said. “The documentation may not be accepted by the authorities because of some minor flaw, and this will certainly be used as an instrument of influence and control.”

Besides the re-registration requirement, the law will prohibit religious activities “directed against” Belarus’s “sovereignty, constitutional system and civil harmony”, or thought to harm “health and morals” or “humiliate national honour and dignity”.

Signed parental applications will be required for children seeking religious education under government supervision, while pilgrimages will be restricted, and parish founding members listed and tracked.

Concerns about the law have been expressed by Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Baptist, and Muslim leaders. Belarus’s Orthodox Patriarchal Exarch, Metropolitan Vienijamin (Tupieka), whose Church makes up half the population of 9.4 million, joined religious leaders at a National Assembly session on 3 November, to ensure that their proposed amendments were “taken into account”.

The Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs of Belarus, Alexander Rumak, later confirmed, however, that the proposals had “largely concerned” matters of terminology, and had not led to “conceptual changes” in the law.

Russia has gained military and logistical support for its invasion of Ukraine from the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, whose disputed August 2022 re-election, after 26 years in power, was followed by harsh repression and international sanctions.

About 1700 political prisoners are currently incarcerated, including Ales Bialiatski, the winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize; and 60 Orthodox, Protestant, and RC clergy have been targeted for “persecution” over the past three years, human-rights groups say.

Three RC priests were arrested last month on extremism and treason charges, and a Baptist pastor, Vasyl Trubczyk, was detained in the western city of Grodno, on Friday, for publicly criticising the Ukraine war.

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