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20 January 2011

Religious Liberty: Belarus

Alexander Lukashenko was declared the winner of the Belarusian presidential election last month, winning 79.7 per cent of the vote. This week, the European Parliament is scheduled to hold a debate on the post-election situation in Belarus. A statement from the European parliament said MEPs will discuss: "December's rigged elections in Belarus, following which opposition leaders were jailed and demonstrators attacked by police."  

President Lukashenko is largely known as 'the last dictator of Europe,' and in 1996 changed his country's constitution, giving himself unlimited powers. He has also enforced strict and hard laws on religion. In 2002, despite protests from human rights organisations, the EU and domestic religious groups, President Lukashenko signed a religion law. This law, although supposed to guarantee religious freedom, now requires all religious groups to receive prior government approval. However, registration at a national level is restricted to traditional faith groups such as the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. The restrictions place significant limits on the activities of other faith groups and police frequently break up services and home church meetings.  

Speaking to Christian communities in Belarus, Christainpress.com was told that the laws "heavily restrict their activities, suppress freedom of religion, and legalise the criminal prosecution of individuals for their religious beliefs". New Life Pentecostal Church in the centre of Minsk has received ongoing harassment from the Government. Their lawyer and opposition leader Sergey Lukanin was subjected to an apartment search by the KGB and was detained for questioning in connection with protests that took place after the election in December. The church has been forced to operate for more than two months with no bank account. The accounts were frozen after the church was issued with two major fines last summer. Meanwhile, officials seek to evict the church from its current premises - a former cowshed that was purchased in 2002. 

There is particular concern from Operation World for evangelical Christians in Belarus, who are in the minority. Some evangelical Christians have resorted to sending each other 'coded' email messages to communicate concerns about the government's intimidation of the evangelical Church. The state maintains laws that forbid meeting in homes for worship, opening religious schools, importing and distributing non-state approved literature and ministering out of their home city. One of the biggest problems for evangelicals is the fact that they are unable to buy or rent property for worship. Dr Alexander Firisiuk, a former president of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in Belarus, has boldly claimed that "religious laws are worse now than during Stalin's regime". 

Many of the opposition candidates for the presidential election were Christians, and there was hope for the election to signal a positive change for freedoms in Belarus. However, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly said that "this election failed to give Belarus the new start it needed. The counting process lacked transparency. The people of Belarus deserve better".