DISCRIMINATION NORMS OF NEW LAW ON RELIGIONS PUT IN FORCE
On 10 December Minsk Frunzenski borough administration of Minsk gathered heads of religious communities, registered in the borough. At the meeting they were informed about the new legislation in the sphere of freedom of consciousness. Ala Rabitsava, head of department on religious affairs at Minsk administration, was present at the meeting. She informed the meeting participants that, according to the new law, Bible study home groups can be conducted only with permission of local authorities. She explained that such Bible study home groups are given the same status as public worship. Rabitsava announced, private houses and apartments of citizens do not have the status of places, especially meant for such events, that is why they should be conducted only with permission of the authorities.
According to Dzina Shawtsova, lawyer of the Jesus Christ Church (phone # +375 17 234-65-80), home groups, i.e. weekly meetings of believers at home of one of them with the purpose of prayer and Bible study, are one of the basic kinds of worship in Evangelical churches.
"During discussion of this law, -- says Dzina Shawtsova, -- representatives of Evangelical churches repeatedly drew attention to Art. 25, which allows officials to arbitrarily limit the right of citizens to jointly practice their religion. Then the authorities tried to convince us that nothing like this would happen, that this is an imaginary problem. However, the speech of Minsk administration official demonstrates, that our apprehensions were grounded. Minsk city executive committee does not intend to take account of Art. 31 of the Belarusian Constitution. According to Art. 31, every citizen has the right to practice religion individually or jointly with other citizens. Home groups are the form of joint practice. The Constitution does not establish any conditions for realizing this right (place, permission of authorities, etc.).
Today, owing to "efforts" of Ala Rabitsava, in particular, a number of Evangelical churches, which do not have their own buildings, are deprived of the possibility to rent halls in Minsk. Now they are forced to gather only in home groups. However, this possibility also became dependent on the will of this or that official. Moreover, we consider such practice openly unconstitutional and not meeting international standards in the field of freedom of consciousness. At the meeting we also heard the definition of meetings which will be considered "mass" ones. According to Ala Rabitsava, "mass" means gathering 10 or more people. At the same time the chairperson of the Committee on Religious and Ethnic Affairs gives quite different figures – 100 or more people. Vagueness of norms of the new law makes local officials free to interpret them. In concrete situation such freedom leads to direct restriction of citizens' rights".