Protestant Authorities Ask Constitutional Court to Admit Religious Laws Unconstitutional
To Constitutional Court of the Republic of Belarus
220016, Minsk Marks Street, 32
On 16 November 2002 the Law of the Republic of Belarus "About amendments to the Law of the Republic of Belarus "About freedom of conscience and religious organizations" by which the Law of the Republic of Belarus "About freedom of conscience and religious organizations" (further referred to as "the Law" was introduced".
As it followed from numerous explanations of representatives of the Committee on Religious and National Affairs at the Soviet of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus, it was necessary to introduce the Law to eliminate the activity of illegal, pseudo-religious organizations (sects). In practice, the Law limited the religious rights of citizens and put obstacles to the activity of legally registered religious organizations.
Many of the Law regulations not only fail to meet normative acts of civil law (for instance, the juridical qualification of kinds of religious organizations), but also contradict to international normative acts in the field of human rights, the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus and imposes discriminative limitations to freedom of conscience:
1. The law contains a number of obscure terms which allows its arbitrary use in practice. A number of notions, used in the Law, are defined too narrow without consideration of certain confessions.
Article 3 of the Law also defines the notion of "religious activity" without mentioning the subject constitution of the activity (citizen or organization). This notion, allocated by the Law, groundlessly widens the notion of religious activity, including organizational and material provision of cult practice of religious organization – church janitor, production of religious literature by printing houses, etc.
2. The Law evidently limits the freedom of conscience of foreign citizens and persons without citizenship. According to Article 13 "Only free will associations of citizens of the Republic of Belarus are considered as religious organizations in the Republic of Belarus…". Article 14 provides that religious societies are established on the initiative of at least 20 citizens of the Republic of Belarus as neither foreign citizen, nor person without citizenship can be among initiators of a society even if they legally live on the country's territory.
Meanwhile, in accordance with the Conclusive document of the Vienna assembly of the OSCE countries of 1989 states (including Belarus) undertook to respect the right of religious societies "to organization in accordance with their hierarchical and institutional structure" (point 16.4).
3. Articles 13, 14 and 17 of the Law together with Articles 167-1 and 193 of the Code of Administrative Violations of the Republic of Belarus state that citizens can realize their right to religious confession only after registration of religious society as a juridical body. How than a religious group of less than 20 persons can realize this right? ("everyone has the right to religious confession whether alone or in cooperation with other individuals… ", Article 31 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus).
As a result of the legal deficiency in this field every kind of preparation to establishment of a religious society is considered as illegal religious activity. The Law limits religious rites by the place of residence. In the case of necessity religious rites and ceremonies can be conducted in the places of residence of citizens if the rules of habitation and public order are observed and the rites and ceremonies are not of mass and/or systematic nature (part 2 of Article 25). The law initiator didn't took in consideration that religious rites are at important part of may religions. This very part limits the right of citizens to realization of their religious needs in the places of residence what resulted in trouble for protestant societies, in the religious practice of which one of the duties of priest is to regularly visit coreligionists in their houses for Biblical readings and prayers. The terms "mass and systematic" are explained arbitrary as a result of which meeting of more than three persons in a house could be qualified as a mass measure.
After the law enforcement there were many cases when citizens were punished upon Articles 167-1 and 193 of the CAV for joint prayers and Biblical studies.
4. Articles 14 and 15 of the Law contain the norms that limit the territory of activity of religious societies, organizations and assemblies. Article 20 contains the demand to specify the territory of activity of religious organization in its statute. These norms fail to meet the civil law of the Republic of Belarus where there are no territorial restrictions to the activity of juridical bodies.
As a result of "restrictions" to the activity of religious organizations a mission of a worker of one religious society to another in the neighboring settlement is considered as a violation of the law and the statute. The authorities also consider as a violation the very fact of being of a member of religious society in a settlement where there are no registered societies of his/her religious direction.
5. Religious organizations are very anxious about the provisions of the Law concerning the state religious expertise. The text of the Law doesn't explain its aims, doesn't contain any terms, the officials who are empowered to such activity, etc. Preliminary expertise is actually a kind of censorship, which is a direct contradiction to Article 33 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus.
6. One of the central issues of the Law is the order of liquidation of religious organizations (Article 23). According to this norm, a religious organization can be liquidated by court in the cases of "repeated violation of the Law and other legislation…". A religious society can violate the tax law, rules of fire security or accountancy or other demands of normative acts. All these are violations of legislation. This norm considerably hardens the conditions for believers and religious societies as compared to the rules of part 3 of Article 16 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus.
Article 23 defines that a religious organization can be liquidated in the case it inflicts harm to public health, morality, etc. However, it is not explained who is to register such facts. To our mind, such facts can be registered by court only, which is to be obligatory put into the law.
7. The last part of Article 25 that allocated the long-run practice, also creates many problems to religious organizations. Following this norm, a religious organization can't hold a religious assembly in Recreation Houses and other public leisure institutions without permission of the authorities, whereas beforehand such institutions could be freely rented for these purposes. At present organs of power use this provision to counteract to many protestant societies that don't own buildings. In Minsk alone dozens of religious societies with up to 800 members have no possibility to rent buildings for regular religious assemblies. Power organs invent different reasons (including "inexpediency") for disallowing the rent.
8. The new edition of the Preamble to the Law, athwart the constitutional principle of the equality of religions for the law, defines a number of religious directions as the dominating which leads to discriminative direction in usage of other norms of the Law.
So, the mentioned provisions of the Law contradict to Articles 16, 22 and 23 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, Article 18 and part 2 of Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948 and Article 18 of the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 16 December 1966. Being guided by the abovementioned facts and Articles 2, 5 and 7 of the Law of the Republic of Belarus "About the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Belarus", Article 40 and Article 112 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus we ask to admit the mentioned norms of the Law of the Republic of Belarus "About freedom of conscience and religious organizations" incompatible with the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus and international standards in the field of the freedom of conscience.
From the Republican Religious Association "Union of Evangelic Faith Christians in the Republic of Belarus" Bishop S.S. Khomich
From the Union of Evangelic Baptist Christians in the Republic of Belarus Bishop M.V. Sinkavets
From the Religious association of societies of Full Gospel Christians in the Republic of Belarus Bishop A.V. Sakovich
From the Religious association "Conferences of Churches of Seventh Day's Advent Christians" in the Republic of Belarus Bishop M.I. Astrowski
3 March 2004
Information Department of HRC "Viasna"