New Religion Law in Belarus will allow more arbitrariness against Christian churches
On October 11 the House of Representatives of Belarus approved the new law on the activities of religious organisations in its first reading. The content of this bill has only recently been made public and although it is still awaiting its second reading before coming into force, the UN and various human rights organisations are warning of the further repression of churches considered "undesirable" that this law will allow. "Mass liquidation of various religious organizations" is expected, reports opposition media.
According to the human rights organisation Forum 18, the repercussions of this law include the following:
"- continue to require all religious communities to gain state registration before they are allowed to operate;
- continue to ban the activity of unregistered religious organisations;
- impose compulsory re-registration within one year on all registered religious organisations, paralleling earlier demands on political parties and other public associations;
- impose even tighter registration restrictions and conditions;
- make extensive and arbitrary use of the undefined terms "extremism", "terrorism", and "the ideology of the Belarusian state" to justify restricting the exercise of freedom of religion or belief and related fundamental freedoms;
- continue powers for the regime to inspect and monitor religious communities;
- give greater "legal" possibilities for the regime to forcibly close religious communities;
- continue and increase censorship and restrictions on religious literature and items;
- impose new restrictions on religious education by religious communities;
- aim to separate religious communities from involvement with wider society;
- and impose new restrictions on religious charitable activity, allowing no religious organisations except monasteries from running children's homes."
The new Religion Law aims to replace and toughen the already strict 2002 Religion Law. Various efforts by civil society groups and Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant entities post-2002 to modify this law, including a petition endorsed by more than 50,000 individuals, were dismissed by the government, and those behind the initiatives faced repercussions. According to experts consulted by the Belarusian opposition media ‘Belsat’, the creation of this new law is the regime's response to the active participation of various religious communities in the 2020 protests.
"The Soviet times are coming back, when religious people, believers had to hide," said Archpriest George Roy from the Belarusian Orthodox Church (Patriarchate of Constantinople) in Vilnius to Belsat.
In August 2023, three United Nations Special Rapporteurs wrote to the Belarusian government expressing concerns that provisions in the proposed new Religion Law "would fail to meet Belarus' obligations under international human rights law."
Update (Jan 11, 2024): The new law has been signed on December 30, 2023 and will come into force on July 5, 2024. The legal text was published on January 5 and has been criticised by many religious leaders. It replaces the already highly restrictive 2002 Religion Law.
Article 15 of the new law declares: "Religious activity in Belarus without the creation of religious organisations and their state registration is banned." Furthermore, the law requires all religious communities to re-register between July 2024 and July 2025.