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Limits of Religious Tolerance: Protestantism in Belarus

A cowshed adopted as church

Last month New Life, a Protestant Church in Minsk, celebrated its victory: the authorities allowed them to pray in the cowshed. Over the last five years, this Protestant community had to go through over 30 court hearings and their success has a bitter aftertaste.

Protestantism in Belarus undergoes a renaissance. Albeit the Protestant communities appear to be the fastest-growing, the case of the New Life proves how the authorities make their life difficult. Today restrictive legal framework hinders activities and growth of Protestant churches.

The authorities create obstacles which prevent Protestants from obtaining buildings for prayers and unfriendly attitude of the state media clearly raise the question of equality between the particular confessions before the law and freedom of confession in Belarus.

Protestant (Non-)Church?

According to official figures, the number of registered Protestant communities in Belarus is 1,005. The biggest churches remain Evangelic, Pentecostals and Baptists. In comparison with 1,545 Orthodox churches and 475 Roman-Catholic parishes, number of Protestant communities grows fast.

An activist from a Protestant church in Minsk explained to Belarus Digest that the growth reflects the nature of Belarusians as the post-Soviet society, which after the communism started to recognise their spiritual needs.

Whereas, number of Protestant is substantial, the authorities and the state media refrain from calling them ‘churches'. They usually  prefer to refer to them as ‘communities’ or ‘religious organisations’. Interesting, that the Belarusian word ‘carkva’, literally meaning ‘the church’, is reserved for use only for the Orthodox Church in Belarus.

Although the tradition of Protestantism in Belarus dates back to the 16th century, the authorities treat it today as non-traditional bearers of foreign political and cultural influence. Even the schoolbooks depict the Protestant confessions as sects which endanger Belarusian state and society.

The lack of proper buildings for the prayer can easily serve as evidence of ‘inappropriate’ and ‘suspicious’ activities of the Protestants. Without access to public media, it is almost impossible to explain wrongfulness and harmfulness of such propaganda.

To Pray but Where?

The lack of the venues to pray remains one of the top problems for Belarusian protestants. Complicated procedures, unpredictable responses from the local authorities, unachievable prices often complicate functioning of protestant churches.

The parishes are lucky if they get the right from the local authorities to rent a building at reasonable prices. It is extremely difficult to register a new church building for Protestant communities. The case of the New Life church which had to fight over its building for the prayer iilustrates this problem.

It started in 2005 when the community lost the right to use further the building, the cowshed adopted for the house for the prayer. The local authorities took a few attempts to resettle the church. In 2010, the community got the fine of 258 mln BYR for the ‘environment pollution’. A battle over the cowshed between the authorities and the New Life Church continued.

To express their support with the church, in October 2012, the leaders of other Protestant churches in Belarus petitioned the head of the Presidential Administration. However, the authorities refrained from enforcement of the decision scheduled for December.

This probably does not let the community to be sure that problems like that will not appear in the future. However, through petitioning and exposure in the international public opinion, the Protestants’ leaders proved they understood the power of  legal instruments.

The authorities continue to reduce the number of permissions to rent land plots. Without it, official registration of buildings cannot be completed. Restrictive legislation pushes churches outside of legal boundaries. 

Protestants’ Problems Echoed in the West

The 2002 law on religion formally introduced inequality of confessions in Belarus. It described the Orthodox Church as having a special role for the Belarusian society. Aleksandr Lukashenka constantly underlines the 'spiritual brotherhood' with Russia and the role of the Orthodox Church.

For example, during visit of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to Minsk he said: “Your ambition to preserve the unity of the Russian Orthodox Church and our Slavonic brotherhood deserves high praise. This idea fully meets the hopes of the peoples of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine”. 

The law on religions put also restrictions on the right of religious organisations to provide religious education. It confirmed the state censorship on import and distribution of religious literature which also rouse controversy.

The Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationalities Affairs of Belarus has a right to reject a registration of any church or religious organisation. The lack of registration makes further activity illegal. Obtaining the permission to build the church is also difficult. In 2010, the local authorities did not allow Protestant community from Navapolatsk to build a church building.

Foreign governments ans international advocy groups have already reacted to the deteriorating situation of the Protestants in Belarus. In a 2011 report, the US Department criticised the 2002 law as ‘oppressive by European standards’. Moreover, the report raises the issue of ‘an extensive bureaucracy that closely supervises the religious life’.  The US 2011 International Religious Freedom Report was also very critical about the situation with the freedom of consciousness in Belarus.  

In 2009, the European Parliament passed a resolution related to the human rights in Belarus calling to guarantee religious freedom in Belarus. But as it often happens international calls remained unheard in Minsk.

Protestants Tolerated but...

By playing with renting of  prayer buildings the authorities keep the protestants far from the public sphere. Perhaps the growing number of  protestants and the difficulty of controlling diverse and decentralised communities worries the authorities the most.

This attitude destroys the image of Belarus as a state of religious coexistence and tolerance, which the authorities often cherish in public speeches.

Paula Borowska is an analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre. Originally from Bialystok, she studied at the University of Gdansk and the University of Bologna.

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