BELARUS: Set-back in Religious Affairs Officials' Two-Year Plan
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".'
Repeatedly asked by Forum 18 how many religious organisations he had re-registered so far, the official in charge of religious affairs in Brest region would not give a precise figure. Vasili Marchenko did admit, however, that only a few of his region's 643 religious organisations – "Orthodox, some Pentecostals" – had re-registered. "They are only just putting in their papers," he remarked in his office on 16 September, "but I'm sure we will re-register them all by the end of the allotted two-year period [16 November 2004]." While he was speaking, his colleague Aleksandr Tsyrelchuk repeatedly held up the same re-registration application – from a community of Orthodox Jews in the town of Kobrin – to indicate that re-registration was indeed taking place.
The official in charge of religious affairs in Brest region, Nikolai Stepanenko, told Forum 18 on 23 September that of the 450 religious organisations in the region, he had so far re-registered 27, including Orthodox, Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals and one Jewish community. Stepanenko added that there were 198 Orthodox organisations in the region, which covers two Orthodox dioceses. However, the dean of the central district of Vitebsk city, Fr Aleksandr Rakhunok, maintained to Forum 18 on 23 September that 80 per cent of those in Vitebsk diocese had already re-registered and that all would have done so by 1 January 2004. According to the official website of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), Vitebsk diocese has 127 parishes, 6 brotherhoods and sisterhoods and 4 monasteries and convents.
Perhaps because the 2002 law "has not entirely been a success," religious affairs officials are already trying to get round it, the Pentecostal bishop of Vitebsk region, Arkadi Supronenko, suggested to Forum 18 on 22 September. According to the attendee at the 12 September Minsk meeting, government officials stated that they would re-register religious organisations with fewer than the 20 participants stipulated by the new law, but that this concession did not extend to new communities. This was confirmed to Forum 18 by both Vasili Marchenko and Nikolai Stepanenko, who added that monasteries and convents which had the necessary 10 participants when they first registered but whose numbers had since decreased would similarly be re-registered. "It's not their fault if they haven't grown," Marchenko remarked.
Arkadi Supronenko saw another sign that the new law was being softened in practice in the local assurances he had received from state officials that all religious organisations would be re-registered as long as they were not in blatant violation of its provisions. The Pentecostal bishop did not expect that fire and sanitary regulations, for example, would be cited as obstacles to re-registration, and pointed out that his communities' standard charter had already passed what he considered to be the crucial stage of approval by state authorities at district level.
While stressing that re-registration was not necessarily a guarantee of the right to worship freely, another Protestant source suggested to Forum 18 that the Belarusian authorities were indeed keen to re-register as many religious organisations as possible. "In their attempt to enter the European Union," he said, "they can 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 Religion Law 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 bans non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox churches such as the Russian True Orthodox Church (which comes under the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR)), 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."