Read the full version, which includes a fascinating review of the history of religious liberty in Belarus, online at http://www.christiantoday.com/articledir/print.htm?id=19015

by By Antoni Bokun, Pastor of John the Baptist Pentecostal Church in Minsk
Posted: Saturday, May 24, 2008, 10:54 (BST)

Belarus has been renowned [for its] freedom of conscience for centuries. This is why
religious freedom, which the current state authorities have been trying to restrict for the past decade, remains a key concern for Belarusian citizens.

In the largest campaign of its kind since current President Aleksandr Lukashenko came to power in 1994, between April 2007 and February 2008 over 50,000 people signed a petition asking the Constitutional Court and other state organs to change the restrictive 2002 Religion Law.

Campaigners against the Religion Law affirm that the rights to life, free speech and freedom of belief are inalienable, "because we have them from birth, they are given to us by God and not the government. Since the government does not give us these rights, they do not have the right to take them away."

The Law's opponents also stress that they are defending the rights of all Belarusian citizens, as it "violates the rights of all people, even atheists."

Even though it is more than five years since the Law came into force in 2002, Belarusian Christians have not stopped seeking its review. When the Law was under consideration, there were protest demonstrations and numerous appeals against its adoption due to the numerous problems it was bound to create in the religious sphere.

Then, once the Law was adopted, the Baptist Union and the Full Gospel Association did not re-register until the very last moment, insisting upon amendments to some of its more odious provisions. While this protest did not succeed, it at least became possible in practice to re-register a number of churches unable to manage the minimum 20 founders. The recent petition marks a new stage in the battle to change the Law.

In multi-confessional Belarus – where Christmas and Easter are officially celebrated twice, according to both Eastern and Western Christian calendars – moves to restrict religious freedom and allot the Orthodox Church the de facto status of state church are inevitably causing resentment. Most people find such a policy perplexing, as they are accustomed to believing that they belong to a multi-confessional nation.

The historical experience of Belarus also shows that religious freedom elevates our nation, whereas religious un-freedom leads to the darkest and most tragic consequences.

The sixteenth century has been called Belarus' Golden Age, not just thanks to progress in the cultural and economic spheres, but also due to religious freedom. Attempts to stop the Protestant faith from spreading ended in fiasco. In 1563 the nobility, headed by the Grand Duchy's leading Protestant, Mikalai Radzivil the Black, succeeded in obtaining a decree under which, "not only subjects of the Roman Church should be elected to all positions and the government, but to the same degree men of noble class, of the Christian faith, each according to his merits." Not long afterwards the overwhelming majority of seats in the Grand Duchy's Senate were occupied by Protestant Christians.

The country became renowned across Europe as "a place of shelter for heretics" where anyone could freely profess their faith, even those who denied mainstream Christian doctrines. Faced with the possibility of being thrown into jail or burnt at the stake for dissent from the prevailing faith in their homelands, French, Italians, Czechs and others began to move to the Grand Duchy. In 1557, for example, Duchess Catherine Willoughby of Suffolk and her husband Richard Bertie came to seek asylum in the Grand Duchy due to their Protestant beliefs, by invitation of Mikalai Radzivil the Black.


After the fall of the Russian Empire, freedom of conscience could only be realised outside the Soviet Union – including western Belarus, which was then part of Poland. Within the Soviet Union, militant atheism led to the destruction of almost every church on the territory of eastern Belarus by 1939. The difference between the two halves of our country, in separate states for just 20 years, can still be felt to this day. The Holocaust devastated the historic Jewish population of our country, and aspects of their religious freedom are limited by the current state authorities.

Despite being formally guaranteed by the Soviet Constitution, there could be no talk of freedom of conscience under communism. Similar guarantees in the 1994 Constitution are ignored today – but the present government is proving as unsuccessful as the Communist Party was in removing freedom of conscience from the hearts of Belarusians.

The current policy of the Belarusian Government, sadly, is to create a kind of mixture of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. In this the authorities give the appearance but not the reality of granting privileges to the Orthodox Church, while restricting religious freedom for all – including Orthodox Christians. These efforts are being met with opposition, however, particularly from Protestant churches.

The most repressive religious law in Europe continues to be in force in our nation. However, inspired by our long history of freedom of conscience, attempts to get the Law overturned carry on. Belarusians continue to work and hope for the day that our country will reclaim its heritage as a land of religious freedom.

Read the full version online at http://www.christiantoday.com/articledir/print.htm?id=19015

 

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