Religion law amendments in Belarus expected to curb freedoms

By Jack Bethel |
Victory Square in Minsk, Belarus.
Victory Square in Minsk, Belarus. | (Creative Commons)

Amendments to Belarus’s religion law are likely to curtail practice and expression of belief by Christians and people of other faiths, according to rights advocates.

“Instead of repealing its highly restrictive religion law enacted over two decades ago, which did not meet international human rights standards, Belarusian officials have doubled down and implemented a more repressive religion law that grants the government unbridled control over religious communities and their affairs,” Abraham Cooper, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said in a press statement.

The amendments, which Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed on Dec. 30 and were publicly announced on Jan. 3, increase requirements for religious bodies to operate legally. Faith communities must re-register between July 5 and July 5, 2025, or “risk criminal or administrative punishment,” according to Forum 18. 

“Religious communities will face the daunting choice of practicing their religion or belief ‘illegally’ or submitting to a brutal regime that uses indiscriminate force and intimidation against its own people,” Cooper said.

Lukashenka said in a press statement that the amendments will increase requirements “for the creation of a republican religious association: the presence in its composition of religious communities operating in all regions and in Minsk.”

“The number of religious communities required to create a republican association has also been increased,” the Belarus president said. “Moreover, at least one of them must have been operating for at least 30 years.”

He said that religious groups providing social services for the elderly, disabled, orphans and others could be created only if religious organizations obtained permission from the regional Minsk city executive committee. These organizations must also re-register with authorities within a year.

“The document consolidates modern approaches in relations between the state and religious organizations,” Lukashenka said.

USCIRF expressed concern that smaller religious communities will be forced to deregister or else face fines or prison terms of up to three years.

Leonid Mikhovich, head of the Baptist Union in Belarus, said the final version of the amendments looked better than initial drafts. He welcomed the removal of a requirement for religious bodies to report details of their children’s religious education to local executive committees.  

Mikhovich told Forum 18 of his concern about the ban on religious communities with fewer than 20 adult members. He also thought the amount of information needed by authorities was excessive.

“It is still necessary during registration to submit information about their place of work,” he said.

The legal amendments continue to require registration from all religious communities, within a one-year time frame. Unregistered faith organizations are banned. The terms and conditions of the registration are stricter and freedom of religion activities curtailed under the premise of “extremism” and “ideology of the Belarusian state,” noted Forum 18.  

The regime is allowed to both monitor and inspect religious bodies, with powers to close such communities. Faith-based literature is also censored and restricted. Religious education is allowed in the Belarusian or Russian language but with various restrictions.  

State control and surveillance of Belarusians have increased since popular protests broke out after fraudulent 2020 elections, according to USCIRF.

“In 2023, Belarusian authorities have bulldozed and liquidated the Pentecostal New Life Church, detained and fined dozens of Christian religious leaders for perceived political activities, and blacklisted human rights organizations working on religious freedom issues,” USCIRF Vice Chair Frederick A. Davie noted in the commission’s annual report. “The Biden administration and Congress must prioritize religious freedom as part of U.S. government efforts to hold Belarus accountable for its gross human rights violations.”

Prior to the announcements of the new amendments, Belarus officials had begun pressuring Christians leaders. Minsk officials on Dec. 20 threatened hundreds of clergy from the Minsk Orthodox Diocese with imprisonment if they violated state restrictions, Forum 18 reported.

Olga Chemodanova, head of the Minsk City Executive Committee’s Ideology Department, and Aleksandr Rumak, plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, issued the threats at a meeting of the Minsk Orthodox Diocese clergy on Dec. 20.

Chemodanova told the priests to expect prison if their ideology opposed the state’s rules. She told them that state agencies had monitored more than 500 religious communities in the past year, and that officials blocked distribution of “extremist” literature. 

Rumak also warned the clergy, saying non-religious symbols in church buildings were prohibited that there was to be no politics in church. 

The Rev. Aleksandr Shramko, who served in the Minsk Orthodox Diocese until November 2019, told Forum 18 that officials from the Ideology Department had attended clergy meetings before, but that the Dec. 20 gathering marked the first time that officials issued public threats. Mass protests in 2020 prompted the state actions, he said.

“Until then, the authorities believed that all was under control,” he told Forum 18. “They had contact with the hierarchy and believed the church was under control, but they discovered it wasn’t so. They understood that they needed to step up the pressure, not just on the hierarchy but on the lower clergy.”

Chemodanova and Rumak declined to respond to questions by Forum 18 about the clergy meeting.

The bulldozing of the Pentecostal New Life Church building in Minsk in June followed the Minsk City Committee’s liquidation of the church in 2022. The church building was demolished after a lower court directive that the Supreme Court upheld on Dec. 12. 

Yekaterina Kaverina, deputy head of Minsk City Executive Committee’s Ideology, Religion, and Ethnic Affairs Coordination Department, supported the liquidation in court. She claimed local courts deemed the church’s online materials to be “extremist,” and that activities allegedly failed to follow the original church statutes.

The church, founded in 1992, is a member of the Full Gospel Union. State officials previously tried to close the church building on several occasions. Some 30 police officers and bailiffs evicted the congregation on Feb. 17, 2021, using an angle grinder to cut the door lock and enter the building, according to Forum 18.

Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko then organized worship meetings in the nearby car park. The Minsk City Executive Committee subsequently banned these meetings.

Pastor Goncharenko was later detained and fined in September 2022 for “violation of the procedure for organizing or conducting a mass event or demonstration (Administrative Code Article 24.23),” according to Forum 18. He was also jailed for 10 days in August after 20 armed police officers raided his home. At the same time, the church’s youth pastor was jailed for five days, Forum 18 reported.

The religious freedom watchdog listed 11 Belarusians who were fined up to two months’ average wages or received 10-day jail sentences in 2023 for expressing freedom of religion without permission by authorities, including:

·       Seven young Christians fined between 3,330 and 3,700 Belarusian rubles (US$1,129 and US$1,016) on April 28 for sharing their faith on the streets.

·       Vladimir Burshtyn, a retired Baptist pastor, who was fined 555 Belarusian rubles (US$169) at Drogichin District Court in Brest Region on June 2 for holding an outdoor meeting. 

·       A leader of an unregistered church was fined 925 Belarusian (US$282) rubles by Molodechno District Court on July 26.

·       Nikolai Bondar, an Orthodox believer, was fined 740 Belarusian rubles (US$226) by Beshenkovichi District Court, Vitebsk Region on Sept. 15 for leading a pilgrimage. 

·       Another unnamed Christian was given a 10-day jail term for leading an outdoor religious event.