MINSK, Belarus (BP)– A new constitution might mean less liberty for evangelical churches in Belarus, observers here say.
The new constitution, which went into effect last November, gives the Belarussian government “the right and obligation to regulate religion.” This clause has many church leaders concerned about laws which could result.
One bill introduced before the constitutional referendum would divide all religious groups into three categories:
— traditional: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim.
— non-traditional: Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses.
— harmful: Satanic cults and other occult groups.
Baptists worry they will suffer discrimination under such legislation. For example, one amendment to the bill would prohibit the rental of any public building to “non-traditional” religious groups.
Baptist leader Alexander Firisiuk said some government leaders are aware of the significant work done by Baptists and feel legislation should be “more respectful” of them. Some say a second draft on the religion law could move Baptists into the “traditional” category.
But overall opinions remain divided on what the government will do in religious affairs. Some say religion will revert to the closely monitored status Christians here endured during the communist era. Others say nothing will change.
A major problem is the vague wording used in existing laws. “Those in charge can deny visas (for foreign missionaries to work in Belarus) on the basis of the law, or they can grant the same visas on the basis of the same law,” said one Belarussian Baptist.
Missionary-sending agencies fear visas for evangelical missionaries might be targeted by the new flurry of legislation dealing with religion. As the Orthodox church has struggled to regain the state church status it enjoyed in pre-communist times, Orthodox leaders in Belarus and Russia have tried repeatedly to have Western missionaries banned.
Evangelicals should know in a few months what the outcome is. “We don’t have any idea what will happen until after the fact and they really start enforcing the new law,” said one missionary based in Minsk.