Europe's churches urged to back freedom in Belarus

Stephen Brown

Sibiu, Romania (ENI). Christians in Europe have been urged to support human rights and religious freedom in Belarus, which is ruled by President Alexander Lukashenko, who some rights groups have described as one of the last hardline dictators in eastern Europe.

"We want just to have justice, free elections and dialogue in society," 25-year-old Natallia Vasilevich from the Belarus capital of Minsk told journalists during the 4-9 September Third European Ecumenical Assembly held in Sibiu, Romania.

"We are very afraid," said Vasilevich, who is on the board of Syndesmos, the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth, and is its representative for central Europe. "We do not have this space for dialogue. When you try to call for this you are called an enemy of the state."

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994. He was elected to a third presidential term in 2006 in an election condemned as unfair by the Council of Europe, a continent-wide grouping of 47 countries.

Belarus has been suspended from the Strasbourg-based council due to what it says is the former Soviet republic's lack of respect for human rights and democratic principles.

A law on religion in Belarus, introduced in 2002, restricts organised prayer to registered religious communities, imposes censorship on religious publishing, and limits educational and charity work to churches that have had at least 10 registered communities in the country for at least 20 years. Critics say the law gives unfair advantages to the Belarus branch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Vasilevich said that those campaigning for a change in her country's religion law often faced sanctions. She said that an Orthodox priest, the Rev. Alexander Shramko, her "spiritual father", had been disciplined after taking part in a press conference with Protestants earlier this year to oppose the law.

German Lutheran Bishop Margot Kassmann told the 8 September media conference in Sibiu she hoped the ecumenical gathering would underline the need for all European countries to uphold human rights, including the right to religious freedom, "which are basic to freedom and democracy".

Vasilevich told Ecumenical News International that meeting with other young people in homes for prayers and Bible studies was technically illegal, as such gatherings are not registered with the authorities. "I don't want to be illegal but if there is no other choice what can I do; stop my Christian life?" said Vasilevich, a post-graduate student in political science and religious studies.

The Sibiu assembly was organized by the Conference of European Churches and the Council of European (Roman Catholic) Bishops' Conferences. The two groupings account for most of Europe's Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox churches. The meeting followed similar assemblies in Basel, Switzerland in 1989 and in Graz, Austria in 1997.