MOSCOW -- Belarus moved today toward imposing harsh new restrictions on religious activity by minority faiths, adopting what human rights activists called the most suffocating religion law in Europe.
Lawmakers gave final approval to legislation that recognizes Russian Orthodoxy as the officially favored religion and makes it far more difficult for anyone of another faith to worship without state approval. Under the new law, all unregistered religious activity will be banned and all religious literature must be submitted for prior approval.
"It's really the most repressive law in Europe," Andrei Sannikov, head of the human rights group Charter 97, said from Minsk, the Belarusan capital. Some religious followers believe "it would force people to leave the country because they simply could not survive here in this situation," he said.
The new measure must be signed by President Alexander Lukashenko to become law, but it is consistent with his style of authoritarian rule and observers said they expected swift approval. Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm director, is often called Europe's last dictator and has been ostracized by most of the international community.
Since winning reelection last year in balloting deemed corrupt by European observers, Lukashenko has overseen a renewed crackdown on political opponents, independent journalists and Western diplomats. His agents have harassed, arrested, fired or beaten many people seen as foes, and his government has effectively evicted the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has fostered good relations with President Saddam Hussein of Iraq and been accused of selling Iraq sensitive technology.
Lukashenko's government has also made life difficult for followers of minority religions, smearing Protestants in state media, imposing huge fines on Hindus who tried to meditate in a park and jailing a breakaway Orthodox priest who tried to build his own church, according to human rights groups. A 19th-century synagogue was torn down in Minsk last year with official sanction.
The religion law, passed 46 to 2 today by the upper house of parliament, is considered more restrictive than one passed in Russia several years ago. Proponents said it was necessary to protect "traditional" religion against cults and sects.
The law's preamble proclaims the "determining role" of the Orthodox Church in Belarus and then describes Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Islam as other "traditional" faiths. About 80 percent of Belarusans consider themselves Orthodox, 14 percent Catholic and 2 percent Protestant, according to official figures.
The law prohibits religious organizations that have not been in Belarus for at least 20 years from distributing literature or establishing missions, and it imposes government censorship on religious publications. It also bans foreign citizens from leading religious organizations and bans most religious meetings in homes, according to the Keston News Service, which reports on religious rights.
"Under the law, the individual person has no rights to pursue his or her religion," said Dmitri Markushevski, a spokesman for the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.
Orthodox leaders dismissed such concerns. "There is nothing undemocratic about the preamble of the law," Metropolitan Filaret, head of the church's exarchate in Minsk, told the Russian news agency Blagovest Info last week. "All the fuss is caused by fears that Belarus will unite with Russia and thus establish a pattern for other former Soviet republics to follow."
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