Current events in the Middle East have drawn attention to the plight of Christians and other groups but there are many other countries in the world where religious freedom is sorely lacking.
One of these is Belarus and a short time ago the non-profit foundation, Forum 18 News Service, published a survey on its situation.
Forum 18 is named after Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that upholds the right to freedom of conscience and religion.
The government of Belarus continues to keep religious communities in what it described as “an invisible ghetto of regulation,” the survey affirmed.
There has been some improvement in the last few years, with a reduction in the harsh measures against individuals and religious groups, but the legal framework under which the more drastic actions took place remains.
One of those statutes is the 2002 Religious Law that requires state registration of all religious communities and places geographical restrictions on where they can operate.
Foreign religious personnel must have permission by the state to carry out religious activity and they can only do so in a restricted area. For example, a Catholic priest who is not of Belarus nationality cannot say Mass in a neighboring parish, the survey explained.
More than two-thirds of the 33 foreign citizens known to have been barred from conducting religious work in Belarus since 2004 are Catholic, the survey said. Priests and nuns active in social issues, such as alcoholism, appear to be particular targets.
The Catholic Church is particularly vulnerable, the survey explained, as about 40% of its 407 priests are foreign citizens. The government has expressly set a goal of reducing the number of foreign Catholic priests.
Politics and conscience
The situation is complicated by the fact that many of those who are in opposition to the regime headed by President Alexander Lukashenko are Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox believers, who, according to Forum 18, consider their faith as central to their opposition of what they consider to be a dictatorship.
“For disfavoured religious communities – usually Protestants – such regulations combine to make nothing legally possible, as they find state permission unobtainable in practice,” Forum 18 observed.
An example of this given in the survey relates the experience of the Protestant New Life Church. Authorities have consistently blocked attempts by the church to use a converted barn for purposes of worship.
The conflicts over the property have continued over a number of years, with threats of fines and eviction from authorities, as well as the supply of electricity being cut off.
Another case mentioned in the survey was that of Father Vyacheslav Barok, a Catholic parish priest in the Vitebsk Region, who was investigated on suspicion of evading tax on earnings from pilgrimages he helped organise to religious sites in Belarus and other countries. Father Barok has strongly denied these allegations.
The treatment of prisoners of conscience, who are imprisoned due to their political opposition based on religious beliefs, is another subject examined in the survey.
Forum 18 noted that in violation of both Belarusian and international law these prisoners have been denied pastoral visits, access to communal worship and religious literature.
One case is that of Father Vladislav Lazar, a priest of the Descent of the Holy Spirit Catholic parish in Borisov in Minsk Region. The survey explained that he was arrested in May 2013 on charges of espionage and was held almost incommunicado in a secret police prison in Minsk.
Later, in December, Father Lazar was transferred to house arrest. Apparently, Forum 18 said, the investigation was dropped in June 2014 due to a lack of evidence, although no official announcement has been made.
During his imprisonment, Father Lazar was not allowed to have a Bible, prayer book or rosary, nor to receive family visits. Only one visit was eventually allowed, by the Apostolic Nuncio to Belarus, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti.
The situation of prisoners on death row was also examined by Forum 18. Belarus, which is the only European country to have the death penalty, is not respecting the right guaranteed under the country’s law to have meetings with a priest.
Often prisoners are given only a few minutes warning of their execution, without the opportunity to arrange a visit.
As well, the bodies of executed prisoners are not given to their families, the date and place of burial is kept secret, and no opportunity is given for a religious burial service.
Forum 18 commented that the historical legacy from the times of the Soviet Union remains strong in Belarus. This, they explained, is typified by President Lukashenko’s self-definition as an “Orthodox atheist.”
Yet, this tendency is despite a significantly higher level of popular religious observance than in Russia. According to a 2006 poll around 25% of Belarusians said they attend church at least once a month; the equivalent Russian figure was only 11%.
While these cases in Belarus don’t make the headlines the violation of religious freedom that continues there is a significant breach of human rights and international law.