MINSK, Belarus (BP)–Reports of religious persecution in Belarus are surfacing in the wake of the European country’s repressive new law that restricts religious activity under the Aleksandr Lukashenko regime.
Lukashenko signed the law Oct. 31, and it went into effect Nov. 16, outlawing unregistered religious activity, requiring compulsory prior censorship for all religious literature, banning foreign citizens from leading religious organizations, restricting publishing and education to faiths that have 10 registered communities, and banning all but occasional, small religious meetings in private homes.
“[Belarus] is certainly Europe’s worst religious repressor, and now it has Europe’s most repressive religious law,” Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House in Washington, told CNSNews.com.
“Belarus is the one state that has emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union with its repressive mechanisms intact, including its KGB,” Shea said. Increased persecution preceded the new law, and observers fear it will only worsen under the legislation.
In August, Lukashenko’s government bulldozed a newly constructed church as parishioners were preparing for its consecration. The government claimed the church was a Christian denomination separate from the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church preferred by the Lukashenko regime, according to CNSNews.com.
Neighbors have complained of small groups meeting in private homes for worship, according to Keston News Service. The pastor of a Pentecostal church in Minsk told Keston the complaining began after the new law was adopted.
Reports also suggest that Belarusian authorities have already implemented public opinion in deciding which religious communities should gain registration. Keston said the public opinion is usually stirred up by local Orthodox priests who lobby against non-Orthodox religions.
A Hindu couple told The New York Times that in the past four months they have been arrested twice, sent to jail for 10 days and fined more than $1,000. An apartment they help rent was broken into and vandalized, and the wife was severely beaten on the steps of their apartment. Six of their friends also were beaten in separate incidents, The Times reported Nov. 21. Belarusian police issued alerts that the couple and their friends are criminals when in fact they are just Hindus practicing their religion.
In 1999, the Full Gospel Pentecostal Church in Minsk had 1,000 members. After being driven from one building where it held services and being threatened to move from another, it has lost 400 worshipers. Most members stopped attending for fear of the government, The Times reported.
Further persecution includes Hindus fined for meditating, Baptists fined for singing hymns, Protestants prohibited from purchasing property and Catholics banned from using foreign priests. Jews have suffered firebomb attacks on synagogues, and a government publishing house published a book considered to be anti-Semitic.
“Lukashenko sees any opposition, any foreign presence, as a threat to his monopoly,” Wayne Merry, a senior analyst at the American Foreign Policy Institute, told the Voice of America in its Nov. 22 report. “He is a classic Soviet in that regard.”
That reason may have contributed to NATO’s rejection of Belarus when it welcomed seven new countries into its organization in late November. All seven nations — Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia — were members of the former Soviet Bloc.
Among accounts of Soviet-like behavior Belarusians have witnessed within the country in recent years, a woman told the Voice of America that her husband and another man vanished from a Belarusian city with no explanation. The Lukashenko government has remained silent on the issue except to claim that she may have killed her husband.
Since Lukashensko’s election in 1994, Belarus has become one of the poorest and most internationally isolated of the former Soviet Republics, VOA recounted Nov. 22. Lukashenko has crushed democracy, human rights and religious freedom within Belarus. In 1996, the electoral parliament was disbanded by “extra-constitutional means,” as phrased by Michael Kozak, U.S. ambassador to Belarus, in the VOA report.
Lukashensko is strongly opposed to western influence, VOA added, and is believed to have ties to another anti-West dictator — Saddam Hussein.
According to VOA, visits between Belarus and Iraq have been on the rise, and evidence is mounting that military sales are increasing between the two nations. In 1998, United Nations weapons inspectors said they found Belarusian optical machinery in Iraqi artillery factories. Earlier this year, VOA said, the U.S. State Department accused Minsk of training Iraqi forces to use antiaircraft systems directed at shooting down American and British aircraft.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: SOVIET REMNANT.