Belarus' authoritarian leader tightens control over the country's religious groups

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has signed a law into effect that significantly tightens control over various religious denominations and organizations.

The law, published on the presidential website this week, mandates that all denominations and religious groups reapply for state registration, which authorities reserve the right to refuse.

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It’s the latest step in Lukashenko’s a crackdown on dissent, which intensified after a disputed presidential election in 2020 gave the authoritarian leader a sixth term in office. The government arrested more than 35,000 protesters in demonstrations that denounced the vote as rigged, and thousands of them were beaten in custody. Many were forced to leave the country to escape prosecution.

Since 2022, involvement in unregistered organizations became a criminal offense, punishable by up to two years in prison.

According to official data in 2023, a total of 3,417 religious groups were registered in Belarus, a country of 9.5 million. About 80% are Orthodox Christians; nearly 14% are Catholics, residing mostly in western, northern and central parts of the country; and about 2% belong to Protestant churches.

Lukashenko Religious Groups

Authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko is requiring all religious organizations in the country to register again. (Belarusian Presidential Press Service via AP)

During the 2020 anti-government protests, some Catholic and Protestant churches gave shelter and support to the demonstrators.

The new law gives authorities broad powers to deny registration and to shut down any religious organization. It stipulates that in order to be registered, a religious group or denomination needs to have at least one parish that operated in Belarus for at least 30 years. All denominations and groups must reapply for registration within a year.

It also prohibits those accused of involvement with what authorities deem as extremist or terrorist activities from running a religious organization, and it bans the use of any symbols other than religious ones in church services. It also outlaws any gatherings in churches other than for a service.

The Rev. Zmitser Khvedaruk, a Protestant pastor, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that the law was “repressive.”

He expressed concern that “Protestant churches in Belarus will become the main target of the new law” in the predominantly Orthodox country, especially given their popularity among younger people.

“Many Protestant churches in Belarus will face a tough choice — to either cease their activities or return to the dark Soviet times, when Protestant churches effectively worked underground and illegally gathered at people’s homes, with (believers) praying under the threat of criminal prosecution,” Khvedaruk told AP.

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Analysts say Belarusian authorities are seeking to tighten control over the entire public sphere ahead of parliamentary elections set for next month and a presidential vote in 2025.

“The Belarusian authorities view the clergy as leaders of public opinion, who influence large groups of people; therefore, they strive to take all denominations under tight, centralized control,” said Natallia Vasilevich, coordinator of the Christian Vision monitoring group. “The new law is repressive and doesn’t conform to international standards of freedom of conscience.”

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