LONDON (BP)–Despite assertions by the Belarus government’s Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs that a “mass” religious meeting requiring state approval is one with at least 100 people, a senior official has declared that if more than 10 people gather for a religious meeting without official permission they would be committing a crime, Keston News Service reported Dec. 13.
Belarus’ senior religious affairs official, Minsk Alla Ryabitseva, made the assertion to leaders of religious communities registered in the Frunze district of Minsk during a Dec. 10 meeting organized by the local administration to explain the new provisions of the European nation’s controversial amended religion law, which entered into force on Nov. 16.
Ryabitseva told the religious leaders that from now on all religious meetings in private homes require prior permission from the local administration. She said private homes are not places designated for holding of religious meetings and therefore such permission is obligatory.
Reached by Keston on Dec. 13, Ryabitseva said so far she had held only the meeting with religious leaders in the Frunze district. She said additional meetings to explain the new provisions of the law will be held with administration leaders in other districts of the city “and if necessary with religious leaders.”
Asked why she had declared home meetings illegal without prior permission, Ryabitseva declared: “You have to read the law.” She then put the phone down.
Dina Shavtsova, a Minsk-based lawyer who has been involved in religious liberty cases, declared on Dec. 12, “The uncertainty surrounding the norms of the religion law allows local officials to give their own interpretation of the law, which in certain situations leads to the direct limitation of the rights of citizens.”
Shavtsova noted that Protestant leaders had pointed out that Article 25 of the law would allow local officials to restrict believers’ rights to meet for worship arbitrarily. “They persuaded us then that nothing like this would happen, that this was an invented problem,” she said. “However, Ryabitseva’s words testify that such fears were justified.”
Shavtsova pointed out that the restrictions on religious meetings in private homes violate Article 31 of the nation’s constitution, which sets out the right to confess a faith individually or with others. “Home groups represent one form of the joint confession of religion,” she said.
“Thanks to Ryabitseva’s efforts, a whole range of evangelical churches which don’t have their own church buildings have been deprived of the right to rent halls in Minsk,” Shavtsova noted. “They can now only meet in home groups, though even this possibility is now dependent on the whims of one or another bureaucrat.”
Georgi Vyazovsky, pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Minsk, told Keston Dec. 13 that in the nearby towns of Gatovo and Krupki officials of the regional religious affairs committee had summoned local religious leaders individually to explain the impact of the new law. He said that during the meeting in Krupki officials had shown a colleague a copy of “V nachale,” a magazine his church had finished a few weeks earlier examining the history of the Orthodox Church and criticizing its views on icons. “We have not even sent out the copies yet, so they must have got them from the printing house,” Vyazovsky told Keston. “You see they have all our activity under control.” He said officials had asked his colleague why they are so strongly against the Orthodox Church.
Asked whether the new law had yet had any other impact, Vyazovsky said, “Not yet, though we don’t know what will follow.” He said his church continues to hold meetings in private homes.
Bishop Sergei Khomich, head of the Pentecostal Union which has more than 490 registered communities in the country, told Keston Dec. 13 that none of his pastors has been summoned to such meetings with religious affairs officials. “We have no registered communities in Minsk’s Frunze district, so none of our people was at the Dec. 10 meeting.” He said he had heard that Pentecostal leaders would be invited in future, although he had been unable to learn if this was to be on a local or national level.
Keston contacted religious leaders in a number of other cities but did not learn that any similar meetings had been held in local administrations. “Nothing has changed here so far,” Greek Catholic priest Igor Kandraceu told Keston from the western town of Brest Dec. 13. “Despite the new law, God remains the same and we will continue to worship him.”
Khomich reported that religious affairs committee officials had told him that the decree outlining the re-registration procedure that all registered communities will have to undergo within the next two years is still being drawn up. It will then have to be approved by the Justice Ministry before being issued. “They promised us it will be issued by the end of this year,” he told Keston. “We are eager to get moving in re-registering our communities.”
The Orthodox Church has continued to express its support for the restrictive new law. At the “traditional” meeting between Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in Minsk on Dec. 12, the leader of the Orthodox Church in Belarus, the Russian-born Metropolitan Filaret, praised the new law. The church also put forward a proposal for a separate agreement between the Orthodox Church and the state.
“It is a very interesting proposal and I do support the initiative to sign an agreement between the state and the church,” Lukashenka responded in remarks shown on Belarusian television the same day. “This agreement will set forth the forms, methods and areas of our activities and the spheres where we will cooperate. I believe that we should pass a set of programs as a follow-up to this agreement.”
Adapted from a report by Corley in Keston News Service, at www.keston.org on the Web.