United States Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith today said Belarus' upper chamber of parliament struck another blow against religious freedom with a burdensome and restrictive religion law. Passage of the law comes two months after Belarus authorities plowed through a newly built church with a bulldozer.
"This repressive legislation, targeting minority religions, clearly violates internationally accepted human rights standards," Smith said. "Lukashenka and his regime of hand-picked legislators are obviously intent on stamping out minority religious communities, leaving only the state-recognized Orthodox Church to decide how individuals practice their faith."
The religion law passed the upper chamber on Wednesday after the lower chamber approved it earlier this year. President Alexander Lukashenko has ten days to sign it into law.
"Lukashenka's regime has inflicted Belarus with the worst human rights record in Europe," Smith said. "It has flagrantly violated basic freedoms of speech, expression, assembly, association and religion."
The new law bans religious activity by groups not registered with the government and forbids most religious meetings on private property. Religious literature is subject to government censorship and religious organizations existing fewer than 20 years are prohibited. Under the legislation, the Orthodox Church has a "determining role" in Belarus. Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Islam, however, are noted as "traditional" faiths.
In August, Belarus officials bulldozed a newly built Autocephalous Orthodox Church in the village of Pahranichny. Authorities ordered the building destroyed, citing "illegal" construction since plans did not include a basement. A journalist was jailed 15 days for attempting to write about the bulldozing. Lukashenka has reportedly launched a media smear campaign targeting Protestant communities.
Lukashenka's political opposition, independent media and non-governmental organizations endure constant harassment. Three journalists were jailed for allegedly defaming him. Lukashenka refused last month to renew the entry visa of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group's acting head, effectively shutting down the operation.
Recent presidential and parliamentary elections, infested with democratic standards violations, were neither free nor fair. Credible evidence links Lukashenka's regime to the disappearances of his political opponents. Evidence also indicates Belarus is a supplier of military equipment to rogue states.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.