It's now harder than ever to practice your faith in Belarus-if you're not Orthodox. The upper house of the Belarusian parliament overwhelmingly passed a bill on October 2 that places hefty restrictions on non-Orthodox religious activity.

Despite the pleas of international religious liberty advocates, President Alexandr Lukashenko signed the bill into law.

According to Keston News Service, the new law requires groups to "register" each of their religious activities. Government censors will now review all religious literature. Fewer groups will be permitted to register with the government (and leaders of unregistered groups will face fines). Only religions with at least 10 registered communities (including one registered before 1982) can publish or teach, and all but occasional religious meetings in private homes are banned.

Victor Ukhvanov, law professor at Belarusian State University in Minsk, said the law grants preeminence to the traditional Orthodox Church. (Belarus, nestled east of Poland and north of Ukraine, is under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.)

"Practically all other denominations except the Russian Orthodox Church will face some new obstacles in their activity," he said. "The main feeling after reading this law is … the Russian Orthodox Church is more equal than others."

Many local governments already have begun to deny permission to show the Jesus film in public forums, according to Valery Tatarytski, head of Campus Crusade for Christ's Jesus Film Project in Belarus.

"Because government officials do not allow us to show the film a lot, we cannot rent movie theaters or clubs or cultural centers in the local villages," Tatarytski said. "Every month, the situation becomes more intense."

Sergei Karnyushko, spokesman for the Pentecostal Union, told Radio Liberty the new law would prompt minorities to emigrate.

Campus Crusade is not giving up. The ministry estimates it will have shown the film in 2,200 villages by year's end. "Now we have changed the strategy a little bit," Tatarytski said. "We find volunteers from local churches. We give them equipment and everything they need for ministry. So we do an underground showing of the Jesus film."

Related Elsewhere

Read the U.S. State Department's Annual Report on Religious Freedom in Belarus for 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002.

Previous Christianity Today stories about religious freedom in various Russian republics include:

Growing Protestants, Catholics Draw IreNew law would expand special status for Russian Orthodoxy. (June 7, 2002)
Council Voids New Religious RestrictionsKazakhstan ban on unregistered groups found to violate the nation's constitution. (June 6, 2002)
Salvation Army Eyes Registration VictoryAfter a long legal battle in Moscow, the Army gets hope "that there is justice." (April 22, 2002)
Pastor Charged with Speaking for Unregistered OrganizationCase dismissed on technicality for pastor from Minsk, but courts are still deciding the fate of the Association for Religious Freedom in Belarus. (Jan. 22, 2001)
Federal Ruling May Mean Salvation Army's Moscow Problems Are OverChurch able to register as "centralized" religious organization, but leaders say Moscow decision must still be overturned. (March 6, 2001)
Russia Recognizes Salvation Army as a Religious OrganizationOfficials say that doesn't restore status to the Army's Moscow branch. (Feb. 28, 2001)
Salvation Army Closed in MoscowMoscow court decision turns city into a 'legal never-never land' for Christian charity. (Jan. 11, 2001)
Will Putin Protect Religious Liberty?Freedoms may be in danger in the new Russia. (July 26, 2000)
A Precarious Step ForwardLoosened rules in Russia may mean better times for religious freedom. (Feb. 3, 2000)
Russia's minority churches welcome liberal ruling on religion law1997 ruling against 'sects' upheld, but religious groups claim victory. (Dec. 30, 1999)
Stepping Back from FreedomThe new law restricting religion is part of Russia's struggle to redefine itself. (Nov. 17, 1997)
New Religion Law Fraught with Potential for Abuses(Nov. 17, 1997)
Jehovah's Witness Verdict Stalled(April 26, 1999 )

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