Belarus - Religion
According to a November 2011 survey by the state-controlled Information and Analytical Center, approximately 80 percent of citizens belong to the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), 10 percent to the Roman Catholic Church, and 2 percent to other religious groups, including Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, and other groups. There are also adherents of the Greek Catholic Church (“Uniate”) and of Orthodox groups other than the BOC. Jewish groups stated that between 30,000 and 40,000 persons are Jewish. Other registered communities include the Old Believers, Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Greek Catholics, Apostolic Christians, Hare Krishnas, Baha’is, members of Christ’s Church, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), members of the Messianic and Reform churches, Presbyterians, Armenian Apostolics, Latin Catholics, and members of St. Jogan Church.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the authorities have restricted this right in practice. Although Article 16 of the 1996 amended constitution reaffirms the equality of religions and denominations before the law, it also contains restrictive language stipulating that cooperation between the state and religious organizations "is regulated with regard for their influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and country traditions of the Belarusian people."
The government also restricts religious freedom using the provisions of a 2002 law on religion and a 2003 concordat with the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the only officially recognized Orthodox denomination. Although there is no state religion, the concordat grants the BOC privileged status. Numerous anti-Semitic acts and attacks on religious monuments and buildings have occurred with little discernable response from the government. Authorities have kept many religious communities waiting as long as several years for decisions about property registration or restitution. Authorities also have harassed and fined members of certain religious groups, especially those that the authorities appear to regard as bearers of foreign cultural influence or as having a political agenda. Foreign missionaries, clergy, and humanitarian workers affiliated with churches have faced many government-imposed obstacles, including deportation and visa refusal or cancellation.
A 2002 religion law recognizes the determining role of the Orthodox Church in the development of the traditions of the people, as well as the historical importance of groups commonly referred to as traditional faiths, including Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. However, the law does not include newer religious groups and groups such as the Priestless Old Believers and Calvinist churches, which have historical roots in the country dating to the 17th century.
Although the 2002 law provides for religious freedom, it contains restrictive elements. For example, the law bans all religious activity by unregistered groups. The activities of unregistered religious groups are punishable in accordance with the criminal code and penalties range from heavy fines to three years in prison. In addition the law confines the activity of religious communities and associations to areas where they are registered, and establishes complex registration requirements that some communities find difficult to fulfill.
The law establishes three tiers of religious groups: religious communities, religious associations, and national religious associations. Religious communities, or local individual religious organizations, must include at least 20 persons over the age of 18 who live in neighboring areas. Religious associations must include at least 10 religious communities, one of which must have been active in the country for at least 20 years, and may be constituted only by a national-level religious association. National religious associations can be formed only when there are active religious communities in a majority of the country’s six regions.
A 2003 concordat between the BOC and the government provides the BOC with autonomy in its internal affairs, freedom to perform religious rites and other activities, and a special relationship with the state. The concordat recognizes the BOC’s “influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and national traditions of the Belarusian people.” It calls for the government and the BOC to cooperate in implementing policy in various fields, including education, development, protection of cultural legacies, and security. Although it states that the agreement does not limit the religious freedom of other religious groups, the concordat calls for the government and the BOC to combat unnamed “pseudoreligious structures that present a danger to individuals and society.” In addition, the BOC possesses the exclusive right to use the word Orthodox in its title and to use the image of the Cross of Saint Euphrosyne, the patron saint of the country, as its symbol.
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