Both registered and unregistered Baptists in Belarus voiced concern about a bill recently signed into law requiring all registered religious communities to reregister or face punishment for illegal religious activity.
On Dec. 30, President Aleksandr Lukashenko authorized a law that — among other things — requires registered religious groups in Belarus to register again between July 5, 2024, and July 5, 2025.
Government’s power to monitor
The law solidifies the government’s power to inspect and monitor religious communities. It also grants the state sweeping authority to shut down religious communities and arrest religious practitioners deemed guilty of “extremism” or who are critical of the regime in power.
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Forum 18 news service quoted an individual associated with the Council of Churches Baptist — whose member congregations choose not to seek government permission to exercise freedom of religion — as saying compulsory registration “began in the Soviet Union, and nothing has changed.”
“As the Bible says, there’s nothing new under the sun,” he told Forum 18, a religious freedom-focused news service affiliated with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. Council of Churches Baptist congregations “will stick to our firm position” not to seek state registration, he insisted.
Baptist Union’s assessment
Leonid Mikhovich, president of the Baptist Union in Belarus, welcomed some changes to the final text of the law as published Jan. 5, compared to an earlier draft. The final version removed a requirement for religious organizations to report to local executive committees about the religious education of children.
However, Mikhovich voiced concern about a requirement for a religious community to have a minimum of 20 adult founders.
“In some villages, we do not have the required number of people, while the law provides no other option other than to have 20 people to be allowed to hold regular worship meetings,” he told Forum 18.
Mikhovich also noted the law requires the founders of religious communities to provide the state with extensive personal information.
“It is still necessary during registration to submit information about their place of work,” he said.
Registered religious communities
The office of the president in Belarus reported 3,590 registered religious institutions as of Jan. 1 last year, representing 25 religious denominations and 173 religious organizations, such as monasteries, convents and religious educational institutions, and 3,417 religious communities.
Of those religious communities, 1,733 are part of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, and 500 are Roman Catholic. Evangelical Baptists have 281 registered communities.