The Relationship of Church and State in Belarus: Legal Regulation and Practice

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

The freedoms of thought, conscience, and religion are fundamental human rights, and researchers who consider freedom of religion to be the foundation for all other civil rights stand on solid ground. Freedom of religion is vital in Belarus1 for two primary reasons: first, Belarus is a multi-religious country,2 and second, due to its geographic location, Belarus acts as a political and ideological bridge between Russian Orthodoxy in the East and Catholic and Protestant Christianity in the West. In fact, Belarus is one of the few countries that recognizes both Christmas and Easter as national holidays twice each year-once according to the calendar used by the Orthodox churches and once according to the Catholic calendar.3

This Article analyzes the relationship between church and state from the establishment of Belarus in 1919 until today. Following this introduction, Part II will summarize the major steps taken by Belarus during the first seven decades of the country's history. Part III will examine the Perestroyka period-an eight-year period of change in the status of religion beginning in the late 1980s. Part IV will bring the analysis to the present day by considering recent developments in the relationship between church and state in Belarus. Part V will offer a brief conclusion.

II. THE FIRST SEVENTY YEARS: 1919-1988(4)

From the establishment of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Byelorussia5 in 1919, the communist state diminished the role of the church in Belarus-to the point that believers and clergy were prosecuted for religious practice-despite the fact that freedom of conscience was proclaimed in each of the Belarusian constitutions of 1919, 1927, 1937, and 1978.6

In spite of the formal proclamations of the freedom of religion, the rights of believers were severely restricted until the end of the 1980s. In the 1920s and 1930s, both believers and members of the clergy were routinely arrested and executed, and, until 1936, clergy members were denied voting rights. The state also destroyed church buildings, unlawfully denied registration to religious organizations, and prohibited churches administratively-especially in the 1950s and early 1960s.7 According to the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs, there were 1445 Orthodox churches, 704 synagogues, and 148 Roman-Catholic churches in Belarus before 1917.8 By January of 1937, authorities had closed 1371 Orthodox churches, 633 synagogues, and 95 Roman-Catholic churches.9

Until the late 1970s, virtually no national legislation regulated the relations between church and state in Belarus. The state primarily applied the Decree on Religious Organizations, issued by the Central Executive Committee and Council of People's Commissars of Russia in 1929.10 In 1977, however, the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Belarus passed the Resolution on Religious Organizations.11

Under the resolution, religious organizations that had not registered with the proper authority were not permitted to conduct any activities, and in addition, the registration procedure was extremely complicated. In order to carry out religious activities, religious groups were first required to obtain formal permission from the executive committee of the district or city council. Next, the groups had to obtain permission from the Oblast or Minsk City Executive Committee. Finally, religious groups were required to obtain consent from the USSR Council of Ministers' Council for Religious Affairs. In practice, all decisions were also submitted for approval to the corresponding bodies of the Communist Party and local KGB structures. Each of these authorities was entitled to refuse any application, and if an application was refused, religious groups had no right to appeal or seek judicial review.12 As Mr. Ivan Plakhotnyuk, Council for Religious Affairs' former representative to Minsk, wrote in his memoirs:

[I]t was practically impossible to exercise the right to registration in a quiet way, without any struggle. …