Stefan J. Bos,
Special Correspondent, ASSIST News Service with Keston News Service
MINSK, BELARUS (ANS) — In a move expected to further isolate isolate the former Soviet Republic underground , Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko signed Europe's "most restrictive religious law," Thursday October 31, the Keston News Service (KNS) said.
analysts suggested that the law would effectively ban all religious activity accept that of the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church, which has been accused of keeping close ties with the current and previous Soviet era leadership.
There were fears Thursday, October 31, that different groups, including active evangelical and born-again Christians, would be forced underground and possible imprisoned as the new legislation bans unregistered religious activity.
It also requires prior censorship for all religious literature and is expected to lead to serious problems for international missionaries as it forbids foreign citizens from leading religious organizations.
In addition religious education is restricted to faiths that have ten registered communities, including at least one that had registration in 1982. There is a ban on all but occasional, small religious meetings in private homes, noted KNS, which monitors religious persecution.
"Some believers will have to return to the underground," the outspoken Father Yan Spasyuk, leader in Belarus of the small unregistered Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, told KNS.
"Its not a critical situation…People got used to working in the underground over the past thirty or forty years," he said, referring to decades of Communism when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union.
The religion law was approved by the lower house of parliament on 27 June and by the upper house on October 2. It remained unclear why it took the president so long to sign the legislation, which was due to come into effect within 10 days.
It remained unclear why it took the president so long to sign the legislation, which was due to come into effect within 10 days. But there were indications that pressure from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, human rights organizations and churches played a role.
Pastor Lyavon Lipen of Minsk's registered Reformed Church told KNS that the new law was "highly discriminatory" and warned that "active believers" could soon be imprisoned. "Any attempt to read the Bible with people will be punished by fines," he maintained adding that "it may go further than that."
He accused the Geneva-based World Alliance of Reformed Churches of "doing nothing"" to speak up against the new law. "Although they've been informed about this they have been silent."
"There is nothing we can do about it although we believe it is undemocratic and violates the constitution, " said Bishop Sergei Khomich, leader of the Pentecostal Union, the second largest religious faith in the number of registered communities.
Khomich's concerns were echoed by Bishop Nikolai Sinkovets, head of the Baptist Union. "The law is bad, of course," he 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."
Aleksandr Sakovich, leader of the Full Gospel Union said he feared that his organization, would lose registration as an umbrella body for evangelical groups. "We had no registered communities until 1991, so we don't have the twenty years' existence needed," he was quoted as saying.
The chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Oleg Gulak, told KNS that he worries that "many communities will lose registration," and that they will be forced to go underground. A representative of the Vatican suggested that the law could also make it more difficult for the Catholic Church in Belarus, as half of the 300 priests are from abroad.
"The community is already here. Unfortunately we have been left without priests and it is difficult to train them in a very short period of time," said Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, the Vatican nuncio in the capital Minsk. "This is our major concern for the future," he added.
However KNS said that some individuals within the Russian Orthodox Church, which officially backs the law, are worried about the fate of other Christians. Keston stressed it had independently learnt of at least one Minsk-based Orthodox priest who opposed the new law.
He was apparently told earlier this year by a senior clergyman not to voice his dissatisfaction publicly as the Orthodox Church had put great efforts into having the law adopted. The spokesman for the Orthodox Church declined to comment on the president's signature. "You will have to speak to Andrei Aleshko, the Church's legal adviser," Andrei Petrashkevich was quoted as saying.