BELARUS: Krishna devotees under pressure
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."
Their action consequently rendered illegal, Malakhovsky continued on 25 January, Krishna devotees are regularly detained briefly by local police, less frequently fined up to 20 US Dollars (= 43,330 Belarusian Roubles, 137 Norwegian Kroner, or 16 Euros) or, if they are Russian citizens, ordered to leave Belarus. In accordance with the republic's 2002 law on religion, Krishna devotees have the right – if they obtain permission - to distribute religious literature only within the limits of the cities where they are currently registered: Minsk, Grodno (Hrodna), Gomel (Homyel'), Brest, Vitebsk (Vitsyebsk) and Bobruisk (Babruysk). If they attempt to distribute it elsewhere, remarked Malakhovsky, they are commonly ordered to leave town by police.
The leader of the Minsk Society for Krishna Consciousness also told Forum 18 that its members are permitted to hold religious processions only in an isolated location in the Belarusian capital, for which the municipal authorities charge 100 US Dollars (if on a weekday) [= 216,652 Belarusian Roubles, 682 Norwegian Kroner, or 79 Euros] or 300 US Dollars (if at a weekend) [= 650,001 Belarusian Roubles, 2,046 Norwegian Kroner, or 237 Euros] for related police, health and sanitation arrangements. So far, however, police have turned a blind eye to the small, unapproved summer processions through central Minsk streets which the community holds instead, he remarked.
Malakhovsky confirmed to Forum 18 that the Society for Krishna Consciousness in Belarus has asked the United Nations Human Rights Committee to evaluate the legality of the state authorities' refusal to register the organisation at the republican level under the previous law on religion. Krishna devotees in Belarus are unable to meet the present law's conditions for this status, he explained, since they do not have at least 10 communities including a minimum of one which has been in existence for 20 years or more. Under the same law, the group's existing communities do not have the right..to invite foreign spiritual leaders or create their own media publications as a result. While their foreign spiritual leaders are able to visit Belarus informally, said Malakhovsky, "we can't rent a public hall for their lectures or publicise the visits in any way." The 500 active Krishna devotees in Minsk currently produce only 300 copies of a religious publication for internal use, he said, since a higher circulation is subject to state registration.
Due to difficulties acquiring a valid legal address, Malakhovsky said that the Society for Krishna Consciousness in Belarus has so far applied to re-register only three of its communities under the 2002 religion law. While those in Grodno and Gomel have already re-registered successfully, he said, those in Brest simply had their documents returned to them and were denied further explanation. On 27 January, Forum 18 sought confirmation from the official in charge of religious affairs in Brest region, Vasili Marchenko, who maintained that the Brest Hare Krishna community had not been denied re-registration and that he had not received any such application: "We have no problem with Krishna devotees." Unable to locate Sergei Malakhovsky, Forum 18 was told later the same day by another devotee in Minsk that the Brest community's re-registration documents had been returned to them without explanation within the past few weeks. When devotees asked officials what was wrong with the application, he said, they were reportedly told that the Council for Religious Affairs was "not a consultative organ."
Commenting that Forum 18 had previously distorted information that he had provided, the chairman of the Belarusian State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, Stanislav Buko, stated on 27 January that he would issue a written answer to a question relating to the Krishna devotees' situation in the republic within ten days. In October 1997 the committee's Expert Council – of which Buko is not a member – issued an analysis of the activity of the Minsk Society for Krishna Consciousness which concluded that the organisation was a "destructive totalitarian sect infringing personality, health, citizens' rights and the national security of the Republic of Belarus."
For more background information see Forum 18's latest religious freedom
A printer-friendly map of Belarus is available at
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.