Belarus wants to make it illegal for Christians to appeal to the UN

Belarus is considering introducing legislation that would prevent Christians from appealing to the United Nations

Belarusian officials are attempting to limit individuals’ access to international justice six months after a Pentecostal preacher won a religious liberty case at the United Nations.

Forum 18, an organization that monitors human rights crimes in the region, warns that proposed legislation this fall “would close one of the last remaining avenues to seek justice for human rights violations” in the Eastern European country.

For Valentine Borovik, the United Nations was his final chance at a fair trial.

The Pentecostal minister’s Bible study in the western town of Mosty was raided by police in June 2008, and the pastor was subsequently arrested on charges of illegally establishing a religious group. However, the prosecution maintained that with only 13 adults present, the group did not meet the standards to register as a church. Christians, however, “had all the hallmarks of a religious group” and thus had to register as well.

Borovik, who refused to accept this inescapable paradox and insisted he was entitled to hold religious gatherings without notifying the authorities, was found guilty and punished. He made two unsuccessful appeals.

The highest court in the land heard the appeal. Even though “the performance of acts of worship and religious rituals and rites” is protected by the First Amendment, he nevertheless lost that case.

At the time, Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s founder, Mervyn Thomas, argued that this instance was emblematic of the persecution Christians endured in Belarus. Belarus’s leadership must be pressured to uphold domestic and international norms of legality and religious freedom.

Borovik made another effort in 2021. He appealed to the UN Human Rights Committee, which subpoenaed the Belarusian government to explain its position on religious freedom and the statutes that led to the Pentecostal pastor’s arrest. The United Nations committee reached its decision in March, and Borovik was declared the victor.

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In the same month, the United Nations released a report condemning the Belarusian government for its “crushing opposition and repressing civil society.” The report claims that since large crowds protested the reelection of autocratic president Alexander Lukashenko, over a thousand people have been accused in “politically motivated” prosecutions.

More than 270 charities and 13 news organizations have been banned by the government after being labeled extremists. More than 30 attorneys who have represented dissidents or spoken out against human rights abuses have had their licenses revoked, and dozens of journalists have been jailed.

Authorities have also maintained their crackdowns on religious minorities such as Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Hare Krishna followers. Many people, including Borovik, have taken their cases to the United Nations.

In light of recent reports from Forum 18, the Belarusian parliament is considering leaving the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which would deny its citizens the ability to lodge complaints with the United Nations. The lawmaker in charge of shepherding the bill through has not publicly explained why the plan is necessary, with her secretary telling Forum 18 that “We do not give views on this matter.”
The bill will be debated by the House of Commons this coming fall. Belarus may withdraw from the international civil rights accord in the first quarter of 2019 if the bill passes both chambers and is signed into law.

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International observers have noted that since 1994, President Lukashenko has allowed very minimal parliamentary opposition. The elected representatives essentially rubber stamp his agenda.

While insisting that he is “no dictator,” Lukashenko has acknowledged “elements of authoritarianism” in his rule.

“Our power system is harder,” he proclaimed to Agence France-Presse. When asked if the word “authoritarian” might describe them, I answered, “I… do not rule it out.”

The last five elections held under Lukashenko were not considered free and fair by international observers. Lukashenko is not recognized as the duly elected president by the European Union, and sanctions have been placed on Belarus by the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The Russian Federation is Lukashenko’s only significant international backer.

Some analysts claim that the authoritarian leader of Belarus has been motivated, in part, by pressure from the West to try to impose even more repressive measures on the country’s populace.

“Political isolation has made him into a delusional, paranoid, and petty man,” Ivar Dale, a policy adviser with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog, told Al Jazeera. What you witness is a dangerous and unstable guy clinging to power he believes rightfully belongs to no one but himself.

In 2002, Belarus approved a law deemed the most stringent in Europe with regards to religion. The “organization or participation by an unregistered political party, foundation, civic, or religious group” is illegal as of this year per a new law.

Pentecostal pastor Antoni Bokun, who was imprisoned for leading a worship session, later stated, “The current objective of the Belarusian administration, tragically, is to establish a kind of blend of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire.” While it may seem as though the government is making exceptions for the Orthodox Church, in reality they are limiting people’s ability to practice their faith as they see fit. However, there is resistance to these attempts, especially from Protestant institutions.

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Despite Borovik’s success at the UN, the Belarusian government still does not recognize the rights of other evangelical Christians. Several churches have been reregistered since the verdict in March.

Pentecostals at a Minsk church have been cited multiple times for having services in the parking lot. Despite being forced to hold services in the bitter weather, members of New Life Church have been meeting regularly since 2021, when they were evicted from their former building—a repurposed cowshed. There is concern that the church’s legal standing, which may theoretically allow it to hold approved meetings, is being jeopardized by the illicit gatherings, according to officials.

The pastor told Forum 18 that his congregation was emotionally invested in their current location and had “nowhere else to go.” He did, however, say that “our circumstance is not without God’s miracle… To this day, our church is going strong.

A second church will be penalized in 2022 for conducting baptisms in a river and a pool. Its status as a legal entity could likewise be revoked. The pastor has indicated to Voice of the Martyrs that he is unlikely to file a UN appeal.

Nothing, he said, is worth it.

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