The constitution grants individuals freedom to profess and practice any religious belief but prohibits religious activities directed against the sovereignty of the state, its constitutional system, and “civic harmony.” The law recognizes the “determining role” of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC). A concordat grants the BOC rights and privileges not granted to other religious groups, although the law also acknowledges the historical importance of the “traditional” faiths of Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. By law, all registered religious groups must seek permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing activities, and must obtain prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The law bans all religious activity by unregistered groups. The government continued to detain or fine individuals for proselytizing, including a Baptist couple in Lepel who were singing Christian songs and distributing Christian literature. Police also detained Jehovah’s Witnesses and a Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox priest for proselytizing in public. Minority religious groups continued to have difficulty registering. Some groups remained reluctant to apply for registration, reportedly due to fear of harassment and punishment. The government continued its surveillance of minority and unregistered religious groups. Human rights groups said that while BOC and some Roman Catholic clergy had access to prisoners of their faiths, Muslim and Protestant clergy and clergy from nontraditional faiths did not. Minority religious groups said they continued to have difficulties acquiring buildings to use as houses of worship. Roman Catholic groups reported the government denied visas and requests to extend the stay of some foreign missionaries.
Authorities convicted a number of individuals reportedly associated with neo-Nazis or skinhead movements for inciting ethnic and religious hatred against Jews and other religious minorities. On February 27, a court in the Vitsyebsk region sentenced a resident in Navapolatsk to three years in prison for posting videos on his social media featuring mass killings of Jews in the Holocaust and skinheads beating Muslims. In a similar case, authorities convicted an individual from the Baranavichy district for posting videos with anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim content and sentenced him to a year and a month in jail on April 18. Jewish community leaders continued to express concern about the BOC’s annual commemoration of a young child allegedly killed by Jews near Hrodna in 1690 as one of its saints and martyrs. Despite a government ban, anti-Semitic print and video material continued to be imported from Russia and available locally. Interdenominational Christian groups worked together on charitable projects and programs. In a televised interview in November BOC Metropolitan Pavel said Baptists were “a sect,” focused on their “missionary activities,” and called them “annoying” and accused them of spreading “propaganda and not preaching.” The head of the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Leanid Mikhovich, called the Metropolitan’s remarks “unacceptable.”
In October U.S. embassy officials and a visiting U.S. delegation that included the Chair of the U.S. Commission on Protection of America’s Heritage Abroad and the Deputy Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met with officials from the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs as well as prosecutors to discuss concerns related to preservation of Jewish heritage sites. The delegation also participated in the Foreign Ministry-sponsored international roundtable to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Minsk ghetto on October 22. Also in October the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs met with senior government officials for discussions that included religious freedom concerns. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with Jewish groups to discuss anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage. Embassy officials also met with Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups, as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups, to discuss government restrictions on registration and the activities of minority religious groups.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The international religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported that on October 27, police in Lepel in the Vitsyebsk Region detained Baptist husband and wife Andrei and Tatsyana Fokin, who were singing Christian songs and distributing Christian literature. Authorities charged both with violating procedures for organizing a mass event or demonstration and fined the husband 661.5 rubles ($310) and the wife 539 rubles ($250). Andrei Fokin said he and his wife were still in debt from 2017 fines levied following their detention in 2017 for similar activities.
According to Forum 18 and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities in Rahachou in Homyel Region detained Jehovah’s Witnesses Tamara Vitkouskaya and Volha Hrapava on March 24 as they were distributing religious literature, charging them with illegal picketing. On May 16, the Rahachou District Court fined the two Witnesses 49 rubles ($23) each, and the Homyel Regional Court dismissed their subsequent appeals in June.
Forum 18 also reported that on November 26, authorities detained for 24 hours Father Vikentsy, a priest of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which is not officially registered, for preaching and seeking donations in an apartment block in Minsk. Forum 18 stated that on November 30, a Minsk district court found Vikentsy not guilty and closed the case.
The government continued surveillance on minority religious groups of various Protestant denominations. According to various observers, government “ideology officers” (officials in charge of implementing political and social government policies) continued to monitor the activities of members of unregistered religious groups in their workplaces, although there were no reports of prosecutions. Government officials reportedly had occasional “informal” talks with members of religious groups to learn about their activities. According to religious leaders, state security officers also continued to attend religious services of registered Protestant communities to conduct surveillance, which group members described as intimidation and harassment. The Roman Catholic Church expressed concerns that in some regions of the country local ideology officers requested the church provide them with Sunday school programs and lists of children attending them. According to the independent Belarusian Christian news portal krynica.info, local authorities in some regions summoned Catholic priests for questioning after they held services to honor the anniversary of the 1918 establishment of the Belarusian National Republic on March 25.
Christian groups continued to state the registration requirements for religious groups remained complex and difficult to fulfill, which they said restricted their activities, suppressed freedom of religion, and legalized criminal prosecution of individuals for their religious beliefs. The government’s guidelines for evaluating registration applications remained sufficiently broad, they said, to continue to give authorities a pretext for denying applications from groups they considered unacceptable.
During the year, authorities in Barysau, Slonim and Vileika rejected applications from Jehovah’s Witnesses communities. Authorities also continued to deny registration to several Protestant religious communities, including a community within the Union of Full Gospel Christian Churches in Maladzechna. On July 6 and then on August 30, city authorities denied an independent Pentecostal community’s applications for registration in two separate locations in Minsk. In both cases, officials stated that locations provided by the community did not comply with regulations, but did not explain their refusals in detail. The community filed an appeal on October 18, which was denied in December.
Independent religious experts continued to report minority religious groups remained reluctant to apply for registration because members continued to be unwilling to provide their names as part of the application process due to fear of harassment and punishment by the authorities. Additionally, a number of them said they did not report registration denials because they believed that if they did not publicize the denials, they might still be able to negotiate their communities’ registration with local authorities.
In November the UN Human Rights Committee recommended the state repeal the requirement of mandatory state registration of religious communities, but the state had taken no action as of the end of the year.
Many unregistered religious groups stated they continued to maintain a low profile because of what they believed to be government hostility and due to fear of criminal prosecution. According to independent religious experts, many registered religious communities also remained reluctant to report abuses and restrictions because of fear of punishment.
Nontraditional religious groups continued to state the procedure for registering and using residential premises for religious gatherings remained cumbersome and arbitrary. Authorities continued to deny permission for a registered Jehovah’s Witness community in Homyel to hold religious services at a private home, but continued to allow it to hold services at rented premises. In October the local government in the city of Mahilyou allowed a local Jehovah’s Witness community to hold religious services at rented premises. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, in August the Mahilyou Regional Executive Committee issued a warning notice to the local community for engaging in illegal religious activity and meeting in places that were not designated for worship and without authorization from the local authorities.
Human rights groups reported prison administrators continued to deny Muslim and Protestant clergy, and in some cases Roman Catholic clergy, as well as clergy from nontraditional faiths (any faiths not among the four recognized as “traditional”), permission to visit inmates in prison. At the same time, they said, authorities continued to grant BOC, and in some cases Catholic clergy, permission to visit believers in prison on a regular basis, and many prisons had designated Orthodox religious facilities.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported Minsk city officials approved a request from the national association for a convention to take place in the city July 27 to 29. Approximately 9,000 members attended the convention without hindrance, compared with approximately 7,300 the previous year. In November, however, authorities in a Minsk district denied a Jehovah’s Witnesses community group’s application to hold a convention for its Minsk city community of approximately 1,000 members at a local cultural center on November 24-25. In Vitsyebsk, authorities denied a request from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to hold a local convention in November. In each case, authorities did not give a reason for the denial.
Authorities in the town of Radashkovichi allowed the Full Gospel Christian Church’s “Youth With A Mission” group to hold its Christian youth conference at a local facility April 27-May 1.
Religious groups, especially Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to report they remained cautious about proselytizing and distributing religious materials due to what they said was the general atmosphere of intimidation and fear of punishment. In contrast, Orthodox literature remained available countrywide. The BOC remained able to proselytize freely and, unlike other religious groups, continued to participate in government-sponsored public events such as rallies without the need to seek prior approval from authorities. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 30, the Brest Regional Executive Committee issued a notice to the Brest Religious Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, warning the community it had distributed printed religious material at unauthorized locations. The Jehovah’s Witnesses stated the warning did not refer to any specific incidents.
While the national government approved the import of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ requested literature during the year, local governments in Brest and Mahilyou issued written warnings to communities against proselytizing. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents generally had to wait three months before receiving permission to import new religious periodicals.
Religious groups continued to report problems purchasing properties as places of worship. They continued to say that converting residential property to religious use also remained difficult. Renting a public facility to hold religious services remained difficult as well. For example, some Protestant communities continued to report they were able to conclude only short-term lease agreements with the owners of the facilities the communities rented, which allowed authorities to pressure owners to terminate or not renew lease agreements as a means of preventing religious activities. Protestant groups stated they continued to be more severely affected than other groups in this regard because they were less likely to own religious facilities and they could not apply for permission to conduct religious activities in private homes because these residences were too small to accommodate their numbers.
The government continued to require students to use textbooks that representatives of nontraditional religious groups said promoted intolerance towards them, citing chapters in the books that labeled such groups as “sects.” The textbooks described nontraditional religious groups as “striving for the exclusiveness of their role, doctrine, and principles,” being isolationist, and claiming to be God-chosen, among other things.
According to media reports, school administrators continued to cooperate only with the BOC among registered religious groups, based on the BOC’s concordat with the government. School administrators continued to invite BOC priests to lecture to students, organize tours of BOC facilities, and participate in BOC festivities, programs, and humanitarian projects.
On August 28, the Catholic Diocese of Hrodna received a certificate granting registration to Saint Kazimir’s College of Theology in Hrodna. The college became the fifth Roman Catholic institute of higher education in the country.
Religious groups said the government continued to apply visa regulations in ways restricting the ability of foreign missionaries to live and work in the country. Forum 18 reported OPRRNA rejected applications in the spring from the BOC’s Vitsyebsk Diocese for two Orthodox priests from Russia.
Local human rights portals stated that on April 30, the government expelled Polish Catholic priest Krzysztof Poswiata, who ministered in the town of Hatava near Minsk, after authorities refused to extend his permission to serve. Poswiata reportedly received three speeding tickets in 2018, which authorities told Forum 18 was the reason for his expulsion. Forum 18 reported that on June 4, OPRRNA rejected the application of the Catholic Diocese of Vitsyebsk for Polish priest Karol Prandzioch to serve at a parish in Shumilina, replacing another Polish priest who was leaving voluntarily. Father Uladzimir Razanovich, secretary of the Vitsyebsk Diocesan administration, told Forum 18 that unofficially, the government wanted local religious communities to train local citizens as clergy rather than having foreigners.
According to Catholic Archbishop of Minsk Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, foreign priests faced multiple challenges, including: newly arrived priests had to undergo a lengthy approval process before obtaining permission to celebrate Mass; the government often issued them visas for only three to six months; and they often encountered administrative difficulties when trying to renew visas.
A representative of the Polish community in Hrodna told the press on July 26 that local authorities denied Polish priest Ryszard Umanski entrance into the country, saying he did not have a religious visa. In applying for the visa, he reportedly said the visit would be private and not related to any religious activity.
There were no developments regarding the longstanding freeze placed on the assets of New Life Church in 2005. Minsk authorities did not renew their attempts to evict the church from its premises, a process that began in 2007 and continued through 2012 after the authorities refused to register the church at its location. While the church continued to use the space for religious purposes, it remained unable to obtain proof of ownership from the authorities and had no access to electricity. Church leadership’s discussions with Minsk city authorities on the status and operations of the church were continuing at year’s end.
The authorities continued to permit the BOC to collect charitable donations in public as well as on its religious property. While the law does not restrict other religious groups from raising donations in public, representatives of these groups said authorities continued to limit their fundraising activities to their own places of worship or other properties. Groups said they faced government harassment if they tried to raise donations at other locations.
During the year, the Jewish community worked with local authorities to erect at least eight new privately funded monuments in the villages of Svislach, Klimavichy, and Petrykau and other locations that specifically commemorated Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
The government supported commemorative events and an international conference dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Minsk ghetto on October 21-23. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs held an international roundtable on October 22 to discuss remembrance and lessons of the Minsk ghetto, which included former ghetto prisoners, local historians, international and local officials, and representatives of the diplomatic and Jewish communities. Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey condemned “hatred and bigotry, which could lead to killings of masses of people based on their religious or ethnic attributes.” He also noted increasing xenophobia, discrimination, anti-Semitism and hate crimes, and warned against the revival of Nazism and ideas of racial superiority.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
During the year, authorities convicted a number of offenders who reportedly associated themselves with neo-Nazis or skinhead movements for inciting ethnic and religious hatred against Jews, among others. On February 27, a court in the Vitsyebsk Region sentenced a resident in Navapolatsk to three years in prison for posting videos on his social media featuring mass killings of Jews in the Holocaust and skinheads beating Muslims. In another case, authorities convicted an individual from the Baranavichy District of Brest Region for posting videos with anti-Semitic content and calls for violence against natives of the Caucasus (the majority of whom are Muslim). A court sentenced the man to a year and a month in jail on April 18.
In March a Mahilyou District court convicted two local residents detained in November 2017 for stealing parts of metal fencing from graves at a local Jewish cemetery.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, doctors continued to force their believers to accept blood transfusions as part of their treatment, despite their explicit written refusal of blood transfusions.
The BOC, in particular the Minsk-based parish of the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, continued its annual commemoration honoring Hauryil Belastoksky, a child allegedly killed by Jews near Hrodna in 1690, as one of its saints and martyrs. Jewish community leaders again expressed concern over the memorial prayer recited on the anniversary of Belastoksky’s death on May 3, the text of which included a passage stating the “martyred and courageous Hauryil exposed Jewish dishonesty.”
In a televised interview on November 24, Metropolitan of the BOC Pavel said Baptists were “a sect,” focused on their “missionary activities,” and called them “annoying” and said they were spreading “propaganda and not preaching.” He added, “You cannot talk to them about anything and if you do, they turn into gypsies” and “start soliciting until they rob you.” On November 27, head of the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists Leanid Mikhovich called the Metropolitan’s remarks “unacceptable” and blessed “all Baptists in the country, especially representatives of the Roma who are believers of [our] faith.”
While the government had previously banned various literature and printed materials it classified as “extremist” and they were no longer widely sold in mainstream bookstores, anti-Semitic and xenophobic newspapers, literature, digital video discs, and videotapes, frequently imported from Russia, continued to be available.
The Bible Society, an interdenominational Christian fellowship center, continued to print and distribute copies of the Bible and other religious literature, including donating Bibles to children’s and nursing homes, temporary shelters, rehabilitation centers, and hospitals during the year. The society also distributed copies of the Bible and other religious literature to foster and underprivileged families in towns and villages across the country. In addition, the society extensively promoted the distribution of the Bible translated into the Belarusian language. Founded by the BOC, Roman and Greek Catholic Churches, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, and Confederation of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, the Bible Society also engaged in educational and charitable projects targeting vulnerable populations. These projects included Bible studies, summer schools and camps, and literacy courses for children.
An interreligious working group comprised of the BOC, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, and Jewish religious communities organized quarterly meetings, seminars on theological themes, trips around the country, and a trip to Dachau and Flossenburg, Germany, that focused on interfaith dialogue. The group visited sites of former concentration camps and participated in commemorations of the1938 Kristallnacht pogrom in Munich.
On January 20, BOC, Roman and Greek Catholic, Protestant, and Lutheran churches held ecumenical services marking the international Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at parishes across the country. Clergy stressed the importance of cooperation and understanding among Christians.