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IdentifierCreatedClassificationOrigin
08MINSK164 2008-03-07 16:47:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Minsk
Cable title:  

RELIGIOUS LEADERS DEMAND AMENDMENT OF RELIGION LAW

Tags:   PHUM PGOV PINR PREL KIRF BO 
pdf how-to read a cable
VZCZCXRO8843
RR RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHROV RUEHSR
DE RUEHSK #0164/01 0671647
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 071647Z MAR 08
FM AMEMBASSY MINSK
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 6996
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE
RHMFISS/HQ USEUCOM VAIHINGEN GE
RUFOADA/JAC MOLESWORTH RAF MOLESWORTH UK
RUEHBS/USEU BRUSSELS
					  C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 MINSK 000164 

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/07/2018
TAGS: PHUM PGOV PINR PREL KIRF BO
SUBJECT: RELIGIOUS LEADERS DEMAND AMENDMENT OF RELIGION LAW

REF: MINSK 161

Classified By: Ambassador Karen Stewart for reason 1.4 (d).

Summary
-------



1. (C) A group of local religious leaders led by the New
Life Church launched a campaign to pressure the GOB to change
Belarus' restrictive 2003 Religion Law. Leaders from various
religious groups met with Ambassador to discuss their
campaign plans. The following week, the group conducted a
press conference to announce that they had successfully
gathered 50,000 signatures to challenge the law and demand
revisions, and held a roundtable discussion with human rights
lawyers to discuss further strategies. Their petition was
subsequently rejected by the Constitutional Court. Poloff
visited the New Life Church to witness the hardships the
church is suffering as a result of GOB harassment. End
summary.

Leaders Demand Seven Changes to Regulations


--------------------------





2. (C) On February 20, Ambassador met a group of seven
religious and civic leaders who discussed their plans for a
petition campaign to pressure authorities to amend the 2003
Religion Law. In attendance were: Pavel Severinets, Alexey
Shein, and Vitaliy Rymashevskiy of the opposition Belarusian
Christian Democracy; Sergey Lukanin, Chief Counsel for New
Life Church; Dmitriy Zalianetskiy, pastor's assistant with
Jesus Christ Church; Vyacheslav Goncharenko, pastor of New
Life Church and Bishop with the Union of Full Gospel
Christian Churches; and pastor Gennady Kernazhytskiy.



3. (C) Lukanin described the group's efforts since April
2007 to collect 50,000 signatures for a petition to submit to
Parliament, the Presidential Administration, and the
Constitutional Court demanding revision of the law. In
addition to the suggestion of the establishment of a
governmental working group to discuss the matter with
religious groups, the petition contains seven points that the
group demands be amended. They are:

-- to rescind registration requirements for religious groups;
-- to end the requirement for permission from local
authorities to establish places of worship;
-- to eliminate administratively-imposed territorial
boundaries in which religious groups are permitted to
practice;
-- to eliminate clauses that prohibit foreigners from acting
as founders or leaders of religious groups;
-- to return government-owned property formerly belonging to
churches;
-- to add a provision that forbids local authorities to
restrict the activities of religious groups without official
court orders; and,
-- to revise the Mass Activities Law so that it does not
apply to religious services.



4. (C) Lukanin pointed out that about half of the signers of
the petition did not consider themselves religious, but
supported the petition because they understand that the
Religion Law not only hinders religious practice, but
violates rights to freedom of expression and assembly as
well. He also noted that over half of those approached to
sign the petition did so. Gathering signatures took longer
than expected, he said, at least in part because the
Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church
reportedly urged believers not to sign the document, saying
the law helps maintain peace and stability among the various
religious groups in Belarus.



5. (C) The leaders expressed hope for continued support from
the U.S. and the EU, and floated the idea of sending a
representative to the U.N. General Assembly to present their
case there. They also stated that they are planning to
establish a legal defense office for persecuted religious
groups.

A Somewhat Consolidated Media Plan


--------------------------





6. (C) To support the petition, the group held a press
conference at New Life Church February 28. They outlined the
seven points they demand be revised, and discussed the
difficulties they faced when collecting signatures. Poloff
attended the press conference and noted that it was very well
organized by local standards, and included most of the major
independent media outlets.

MINSK 00000164 002 OF 002





7. (C) The following day, the group sponsored a round table
discussion with civil rights lawyers and various opposition
representatives to discuss the petition, possible future
campaigns, and potential legal strategies. The round table
was also well attended by opposition media.

Petition Denied


--------------------------





8. (C) The group submitted its petition February 26 to the
Constitutional Court, which rejected it one week later. The
court reasoned that it can only examine the constitutionality
of a law at the request of the head of state or other
government officials, not upon request by individuals. The
group had planned to submit the petition to the Presidential
Administration and Parliament also, but was stymied by
complex regulations that require submitting organizations to
register as political groups -- a condition nearly impossible
to fulfill.

Church Runs on Home-Made Utilities


--------------------------





9. (C) As a follow-up to the February 20 meeting, Poloff
visited New Life Church's facility on the outskirts of Minsk.
It was clear that government restrictions and harassment
have made operations difficult there. Since the Minsk City
government has cut off all utility services to the church,
administrators have had to create their own power and water
supplies. Poloff observed the generator that is currently
used to power the facility -- at a cost of almost USD 1,000
per month, according to Lukanin. Heat is provided by a
furnace fueled by wood, sometimes provided by parishioners
themselves. Water is supplied by an unauthorized borehole
that church administrators were able to drill. Lukanin
stated that in recent months, seven of his parishioners have
been fired from their jobs as a result of "orders from
authorities."

Comment


--------------------------





10. (C) As reported reftel, the regime is employing a range
of methods to place pressure on religious activities. Though
this campaign is unlikely to result in the desired changes to
the Religion Law, the fact that various interested parties
have coordinated their efforts into a single petition
campaign is a positive step. With the press conference and
round table event, the group was able to accompany the
petition with something resembling a consolidated media plan.
These two points show that religious groups are able to put
forth more coordinated, multi-pronged efforts than in the
past. It is encouraging that religious leaders -- like
entrepreneurs and other opposition and civil society
activists -- have become more organized and capable of
collective action in defense of their rights.
STEWART