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Religion law in Belarus

MOSCOW, Oct. 6 (JTA) — The Jewish community in Belarus is split over a new religion bill that gives some religions — including Judaism — certain privileges denied to others. At least one major Jewish religious organization, the Jewish Religious Union of the Republic of Belarus, an Orthodox group, voiced its support of the bill passed Oct. 2. The bill recognizes Judaism along with Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism as “traditional religions” that have long history in Belarus. The formulation gives these faiths preferential status over other religions — including Protestant churches and other religions that are minorities in the former Soviet republic. But two other Jewish religious umbrella groups in Belarus — those uniting Reform and Chasidic Jews, respectively — criticized the law as posing a serious threat to Jewish and other minorities in the nation of 10 million. Of particular concern is whether the bill would hinder efforts to return synagogues to the country’s Jewish community, which numbers less than 50,000. Sponsors of the bill say it is intended to protect society from the influence of “new cults and destructive sects,” often represented by Western-based missions, that have spread throughout the former Soviet Union since the demise of communism more than a decade ago. The Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations has a provision specifically recognizing the Orthodox Church as having a pre-eminent role, and this could lead to even closer ties between the Orthodox Church and the state, said Yakov Basin, leader of the Jewish Reform movement in Belarus. President Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian ruler of Belarus, must still sign the bill before it becomes law, but observers said they expect swift approval. The law requires all religious organizations to register with the authorities and bans any religious activity by unregistered groups. A similar law in Russia, passed in 1997, has mainly been used against groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some Jewish leaders in Belarus say there are provisions in the new law — including some that contradict Belarus’ Constitution — that are cause for concern. Although the Constitution contains a ban on censorship, the new legislation requires that religious literature — especially books that are brought from abroad for distribution in Belarus — be approved by officials. “All this creates a base for arbitrariness of the bureaucracy in all religious matters,” Basin said. “This is especially frightening in a highly centralized bureaucratic state such as Belarus.” Some Jewish religious leaders also fear the law would create serious problems for the restitution of synagogues. Belarus does not have any restitution legislation, and all faiths so far had to rely on good relations with local administrators in order to regain ownership of religious buildings confiscated during the Soviet era. Since Belarus gained its independence in 1991, only nine synagogues have been returned to the Jewish community, according to Eduard Parizh, president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities, an umbrella group of Chabad-Lubavitch congregations. There are 96 other synagogues in Belarus that have not been returned. The bill on religion provides for the return of houses of worship only if they are not currently used as cultural or sports facilities. Parizh said this provision could create tremendous difficulties. “We are convinced that the synagogues built with private Jewish funds should be returned without any conditions,” Parizh told JTA. He also said he is trying to create a new committee that will include religious leaders and government officials to overcome some of the most contradictory parts of the new bill. □

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