Dzina Shautsova: In Belarus Religious Organizations Got Used to Solve Their Problems Behind Closed Doors

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Presidential campaign in Belarus is a time when voters can revise their lives and look at the work of the government at a critical angle. Believers are concerned not only with matters of well-being but with matters of freedom of faith as well. KRYNICA.INFO met with Dzina Shautsova, a human rights activist and a lawyer, who told us about freedom of consciece in Belarus.

– How would you describe the religious landscape of Belarus today?

– Belarusian society has following religious characteristics:

1) Low level of religiousness and weak connection between religious and every-day life. The religiousness of most Belarusians is purely declarative. According to Gallup, in 2009 Belarus was on the 10th place among the least religious countries. 80,9% of Protestants, 55% of Catholics and 22% of Orthodoxes attend church at least once per month. According to Institute of sociology of Belarusian academy of science, evry 5th Belarusian considers himself “truly daithful”, among them 57,3% are Orthodoxes, 34,5% are Catholics and 31% are Protestants.

2) Dominance of Orthodox Christianity followed by Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism. According to official data, 49,24% of all religious communities in Belarus are Orthodox, 14,88% are Catholic and 27,65% are Prtoestant.

3) Regional heterogeneity:  Hrodna region is mostly Orthodox and Catholic, Brest region is Orthodox and Protestant. Moreover, several small towns and villages are dominated by Protestantism (e.g. Alshany town, where more than half of a 7500 population is Pentecostal).

4) Governmental strive for total control. Belarusian religious law was designed with the aim of allowing authorities to intervene in that sphere.

– Had anything changed in the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations Law of since 2012? Had believers (e.g. Protestants) attained more freedoms?

– One of the most painful moment of the active law is the necessity of registration. The administrative persecution of religious organizations acting without a governmantal permission still continues. Thus, in 2014 Homiel court pressed administrative charges against local Baptist community which was not registered due to the Baprist creed.

– Are foreign missionaries allowed to operate in Belarus? Is it easy to receive a permission for it?

– Belarusian law states that: 1) a religious organization can be headed only by a Belarusian citizen; 2) there is a special procedure of invitation of a foreign citizen for a religious activity, that requires permission of a Plenipotentiary for religious  and national affairs. Besides, such visit can only be “temporary”. Prolongation of permissions and visas is under control of authorities which can neglect needs and wishes of a religious organization and which must not to explain its decisions, which makes the process arbitrary.

– Forum-18 registered 7 criminal cases against religious organizations acting without permission since 2010. Is it reasonable to talk about freedom in that case?

-Since 2005 an unregistered activity became a major offence. Several cases were started but none was finished. Despite this fact, the members of unregistered communities are in risk of judicial persecution. Since the moment of the law’s adoption the religious organizations got used to status quo and try to deal with their problems without contacting media.

Volha Zrabok, photo from Dzina Shautsova’s archive.