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Belarussian Religion Law Condemned By Many - 2002-11-02

The United States has joined other governments and human rights groups in condemning the new law regulating religious practice in Belarus signed Thursday by President Alexander Lukashenko. The measure is described as one of the most restrictive of its kind in the world.

The United States has been a persistent critic of Mr. Lukashenko, a former Soviet functionary whose rule of the Belarus is reminiscent of the communist era.

And it is deploring the religion law approved last month by the government-dominated parliament in Minsk as "the Lukasheko regime's latest action to further restrict religious freedom."

The measure recognizes Russian Orthodoxy as the officially-favored religion and cites Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Islam as other "traditional faiths."

While followers of those faiths would enjoy a measure of official protection, all unregistered religious activity would be banned, and religious groups that have not been present in the country for at least 20 years are barred from distributing literature or establishing missions.

In a written statement, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the United States joins the European Union and members of many faiths in opposing the new law, which he said appears mainly intended to hinder the activities of religious groups the Lukashenko government considers "non-traditional."

However, Mr. Reeker said the law places "unacceptable restrictions" on all faiths in some measure, since it requires government permission for religious processions and other activities including weddings and funerals.

He said the United States calls on the government in Minsk to take necessary measures to insure that Belarusian citizens, regardless of their faith, have the same opportunities to conduct worship without hindrance and in keeping with international norms of religious freedom.

Parliamentary allies of Mr. Lukashenko have said the new law is needed to protect so-called "traditional" religions from cults and sects, and Russian Orhodox leaders in Belarus maintain there is nothing undemocratic about the law.

But a spokesman for the Belarus human rights group "Charter 97" called it "the most repressive" law of its kind in Europe, and says it will force many religious practitioners to leave the country.