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Does Belarus have problems with the freedom of religion?

18.02.2016  |  Society
Does Belarus have problems with the freedom of religion?

It appears that it does, which is primarily connected with the deficient legislation.

On February 16 Minsk hosted a round table dedicated to the implementation of international principle of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion in the Belarusan legislation and law enforcement.

The “EuroBelarus” Information Service found out what is the situation with one of the basic spheres of human rights in our country.

“In fact, it’s not so easy to tell about the situation with religion in Belarus now. On the one hand, Belarusan and international human rights organizations systemically prepare all kinds of conclusions, which prove that little changes for the better and that the practice that Belarus has doesn’t comply with the international practice. However, if you consider the situation from the medium position, some questions will appear. On the one hand, something seems to be changing: Institute of the Commissioner for Religious and Ethnic Affairs was introduced; state-confessional dialog is developing. Loud stories, such as, for example, hunger-strike in “New Life” Church have faded into the background,” – stated Oksana Shelest, a sociologist and methodologist, senior analyst of the Centre for European Transformation.

Layers also believe that nothing is so simple in this sphere.

Siarhei Shautsou, a member of the Advocates Europe, reminded that Belarus has deep historical roots in regulating this issue.

"Suffice it to recall the statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania dated 1588, which protects the equality of religions (not only Christian religion) at the legislative level among themselves. At that time, it was a model for all of Europe."

However, subsequent attempts to regulate such issues as the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion were less successful when it comes to the Soviet era. In 1992, Belarus adopted the law "On Freedom of Religion and Religious Organizations", which acted for 10 years. In 2002 a new law (called "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations") came into force, the adoption of which was accompanied by active criticism. Although the officials claim that our legislation corresponds to the best European models, over the past 10 years our country has been subjected to constant criticism regarding non-compliance with international standards in the sphere of religion.

Dzina Shautsova, a member of the FoRB Initiative, listed international acts in the sphere of freedom of religion. She noted that since Belarus is one of the UN founders and an OSCE member, it has to meet the related commitments.

The lawyer told what the professionals had to face while analyzing the second edition of the law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations".

"Compared with the previous version, a reference to international standards has disappeared from one of the articles. The article #40 appeared instead, which says that in cases where this law stipulates for rules other than in the international agreements ratified by Belarus, the rules of international treaties are applied. It’s not a bad standard; but unfortunately, it hasn’t revealed itself in practice, so we face the negative trends that have been developed in law enforcement, and even in law," – Dzina Shautsova said.

This primarily concerns the problem of religious organizations’ registration. According to the international law, this procedure is facultative. However, in Belarus the people that belong to some unregistered religious organization can face criminal responsibility, as it happened with the Catholic social shelter in Aliaksandrauka village in Shchuchyn area.

Furthermore, when registering a community that preaches the hitherto unknown doctrine in Belarus, a mandatory religious expertise is required. However, in some regions it is carried out even if a community is preaching some teaching that is well known in Belarus, but registered independently. All in all, Dzina Shautsova concluded, local authorities often deliberately create administrative obstacles to the registration of new communities.

Another problem arises with the invitation of foreign clergy to Belarus. According to the international law, members of religious associations may choose their personnel in accordance with their standards and agreements, and the government should respect that right. In Belarus, this issue is regulated by two documents: the law "On the Legal Status of Foreign Citizens and Stateless Persons" and by the "Regulations on the Procedure of Invitation of Foreign Citizens and Stateless Persons to the Republic of Belarus for the Purpose of Carrying Out Religious Activity." The latest version of this Regulation included a number of new rules, the requirement to master one of the national languages for a foreign clergyman in particular.

The latest collegium of the staff of the commissioner for affairs of religions and nationalities of Belarus showed the attitude to the freedom of religion among the Belarusian government, when the commissioner Leanid Huliaka blamed the Catholics that they do not prepare their personnel well enough.

An Orthodox priest Father Aliakandr Shramko noted that the problems with inviting foreign clergymen do not apply to representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has a privileged position in Belarus.

PhD Sviatlana Karasiova told about the interaction of church and state in school education.

"The processes launched with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 aren’t finished. Belarus is in a state of frozen transformation of many spheres of life. In the religious sphere the state is still trying to win it over," – Sviatlana Karasiova said.

She pays great attention to the inflow of the agricultural population into urban areas. "In all societies, it always automatically leads to decrease in the level of education, culture, and self-awareness. The fact that in the past two decades the education system has been destabilized and decreased the cultural level of society, led to the situation where these people are now working in legislative bodies and exercise executive authority. Do you realize what level of culture, education, and self-awareness they have?"

Some years ago simultaneously with the Russian campaign, which introduced the course on fundamentals of religious culture and secular ethics into schools, similar movement developed in Belarus.

"About 10 catechism programs that rather resembled the foundations of the Orthodox religion than religious culture were prepared. At the same time, we received the program, which had a missionary direction, and we were pressurized to give it a positive evaluation. This situation was the trigger for us to talk with the people who are responsible for that."

Thus, a group of teachers, priests, and university professors appeared, members of which have been unable to come to an agreement. In this situation the decision was made to conduct a public opinion poll of target groups. Pollsters interviewed high school students, their parents, and teachers, and faced quite unexpected results. For example, among the answers to the question "What religions do you know" among students first place took Buddhism, then Islam, Catholicism, Christianity in general, and Orthodox Christianity. Parents have the following situation: Christianity in general, Islam, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Orthodox Christianity. For the country, which is dominated by Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism, it's weird. Protestantism, which by the number of registered organizations exceeds Catholicism and almost catches up with Orthodox Christianity, isn’t mentioned at all.

The topic of partnership between the religious organizations and the authorities was also touched upon by Natallya Kutuzava, the chair of "the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Religiosity".

"There is religious life in the country. But once some activities start in the public space (charitable work, social service, education, and culture), the blank space immediately follows, where extralegal practices are very developed," - Natallya Kutuzava says.

In her opinion, it happens due to the lack of a clear definition of what is religious activity.

For example, synagogues that are destroyed across the country cannot be given to the custody of the Union of Jewish organizations and communities, since the latter are not religious organizations.

"The standard that we are talking about - the freedom of conscience, etc. – should be accompanied by equality and non-discrimination", - Natallya Kutuzava.

Within the frames of the round table Andrei Yahorau, the director of the Center for European Transformation, told about the concept of ​​the study on the perception of legal restrictions on freedom of religion, legal behavior, and prospects of sociology of law that is currently carried out.

"It is important to understand how these restrictions are perceived by the religious communities and what strategies of behavior adaptation they use when faced with these restrictions," – Andrei Yahorau said.

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