Tuesday, 2 March 2004

Questions (156)

Michael D. Higgins

Question:

236 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if his attention has been drawn to restrictions on religious freedom announced in recent legislation in Belarus; the Government’s views on this matter; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6856/04]

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Written answers (Question to Minister for Foreign)

Together with our EU partners, the Government continues to monitor closely the human rights situation in Belarus. The EU views with increasing concern the deterioration in the situation there. This concern has been communicated to the Belarusian Government on a number of recent occasions.

In this context, I am deeply concerned at the terms of the law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations which came into force in Belarus in November 2002. Under the law, only religious organisations operating throughout Belarus, or those with ten or more communities in at least four of the country's six regions, may found monasteries or convents and educational institutions. The law also requires all religious organisations to register with the state in order to function. They have until 16 November 2004 to re-register if they wish to continue their activity in accordance with the law.

We understand that while the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church have both re-registered, a significant number of institutions within both churches fail to meet the law's re-registration criteria for monastic communities and educational institutions. Under Article 19 of the legislation, monasteries, convents and monastic communities must have no fewer than ten participants, while educational institutions must have qualified tutors proficient in both state languages — Belarusian and Russian. In addition, members of monastic communities must be either Belarusian citizens or foreign citizens holding residency permits. The legal requirement that teaching personnel at religious educational institutions be proficient in both Belarusian and Russian also poses difficulties for both churches.

The full extent of the new law's regulations will remain unclear until after the deadline for re-registration on 16 November 2004 has been reached. However, I am deeply concerned at the highly restrictive nature of the legislation and at reports that only a small proportion of religious organisations have re-registered since the law was enacted, with progress especially slow at the local level. As the new law criminalises unregistered religious activity, re-registration is essential to the continuing legal operation of individual religious organisations.

Shortly after President Lukashenko signed the legislation into law, the European Union on 14 November 2002 issued a statement on the matter at the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna. The EU stated that the legislation would have a clearly discriminatory effect, and that it was likely to disadvantage small religious groups in particular. The EU noted that it had been described by a leading NGO in the field of religious freedom as the most repressive in Europe. The EU urged the Belarusian authorities to reconsider the legislation, which was a throwback to a period of European history which should have been left behind, and to draw on the expertise of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, in amending it.

More recently, at the 59th session of the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, 17 March to 25 April 2003, Ireland again introduced its resolution on elimination of all forms of religious intolerance, Resolution 2003/54, urging states to ensure that their constitutional and legislative systems provide adequate and effective guarantees of freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief to all without distinction. A separate resolution on the situation of human rights in Belarus, Resolution 2003/14, which was co-sponsored by all EU member states, also expressed the deep concern of members of the Commission, including Ireland, at reports of potential increased restrictions on the activities of religious organisations in Belarus.

The Government will continue to monitor the situation in Belarus in respect of this legislation, particularly as the final date for re-registration of religious organisations approaches. The human rights situation in Belarus will be addressed once more at the up coming 60th session of the Commission on Human Rights. As President of the EU, Ireland will bring the issue to the attention of partners within the EU.