Draft law on re-registration of religious organizations submitted for public discussion

The Commissioner for Religious and Ethnic Affairs of Belarus has organized a official public discussion of the draft law on introduction of amendments to the Law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” starting from June 5. Despite the topmost importance of the draft law for religious and public life, the online collection of comments and proposals within the public discussion was organized at a very short notice – the public had only 10 days to submit their comments on the document.

As announced, the draft law lays out the new version of the Law No. 2054-XII of December 17, 1992 “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” with due regard to its practical application and for the purpose of bringing it into line with the Constitution of Belarus.

The proposed new version of the law provides for the re-registration of all forms religious organizations existing in Belarus, including the largest nationwide confessional associations (‘religious associations’) and small religious cells and specific churches (‘religious communities’). The draft law stipulates that all religious organizations existing in Belarus will have to introduce amendments to their charters and submit the documents for re-registration to local or central authorities within one year after the new law comes into force. The authorities will have 6 months to examine the documents submitted for re-registration.

The previous re-registration of religious organizations took place 20 years ago, when in 2002 the current edition of the Law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” was adopted. Religious non-profit entities had twice as much time for re-registration then — two years from the entry into force of the law.

As in a current edition, the draft law provides for the retaining of the previous special status of the Belarusian Orthodox Church as playing a special role in the historical evolvement and development of the spiritual, cultural and state traditions of the Belarusian people. The historical role of the Catholic Church on the territory of Belarus and the inherence of religious organizations of other Christian denominations, Judaism and Islam to the country’s history are also stated. Thus, it is proposed to remove the mentioning of the Evangelical Lutheran Church from the hierarchy of denominations enshrined in the current law.

One of the significant changes in the legal regulation proposed by the draft law is the division of religious associations into

  •  local religious associations (which can be established on the initiative of national associations or by at least ten religious communities) and
  • national religious  associations (registration of which will require having at least 15 registered religious communities or 7 local religious associations representing all Belarusian regions and Minsk).

According to the bill, a mandatory condition for establishing an religious association is that at least one religious community have been operating on the territory of Belarus for at least 30 years (according to the current version of the law, this requirement for denominations residency census is 20 years).

It is proposed to maintain the previous requirements regarding the number of founders for establishment of a religious community (now at least 20 citizens of Belarus permanently residing in one or several settlements with adjacent territorial boundaries are required for registration of a community).

The draft law expands the list of cases when a religious organization can be liquidated. The draft law maintains the possibility for the registering authority to suspend the activities of a religious organization outside of court.

The draft law proposes not only to correct old terms and concepts, but also to introduce new ones such as ‘Sunday religious school’, ‘place (house) of worship’, ‘missionary activity’, ‘monastic community’, ‘religious brotherhood and sisterhood, religious mission’, ‘religious symbols’, and ‘religious personnel’.

The draft law still prohibits the activity of unregistered religious organizations on the territory of Belarus and provides for criminal liability for it with a punishment of up to two years of imprisonment under article 193-1 of the Criminal Code. This provision contradicts the spirit of the Guidelines on the Legal Personality of Religious or Belief Communities developed by the OSCE and the Venice Commission, according to which the use of a mandatory registration system infringes on the rights of believers: ‘State permission may not be made a condition for the exercise of the freedom of religion or belief. The freedom of religion or belief, whether manifested alone or in community with others, in public or in private, cannot be made subject to prior registration or other similar procedures, since it belongs to human beings and communities as rights holders and does not depend on official authorization’ (The European Court of Human Rights’ judgment in the case of Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia v. Moldova, 45701/99, para.128-130 is cited in paragraph 10 of the Guidelines, which also means that legal prohibitions and sanctions against unregistered types of activities in this area are incompatible with international standards). The existing in Belarus requirements regarding the legal address for religious organizations, territorial restrictions, and the provision of the lists of founders contradict the criteria of non-burdensomeness of the process of obtaining legal personalities by religious communities set forth in paragraph 35 of the Guidelines.

However, the justification for the draft law states that, in the opinion of the authors, the subject matter of regulation does not affect international treaties of the Republic of Belarus and other international legal acts, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966. It is groundlessly stated that there are no results of scientific research in the field of law, publications in the media and the Internet related to the subject matter of the law’s regulation.

A significant novelty of the proposed draft law is the introduction of mandatory reporting for religious organizations (religious associations, religious communities, monasteries, brotherhoods, and sisterhoods) on their educational activities. If the draft law is adopted as is, all religious organizations will be obliged to annually provide information about their activities on religious education of children attending Sunday religious schools to local authorities, on the territory of which they are registered, no later than on October 31, in accordance with the procedure and in the composition determined by the Ministry of Education and the republican authority of state administration for religious affairs.

According to the plan of legislative activity, after 10-days public discussion of the draft law, it should be updated and submitted to the Parliament in September 2023.

Thus, religious organizations become the next form of non-commercial organizations after political parties, which may face the announcement of a total re-registration (as for political parties, the deadline for filing documents for re-registration expired in early June). As for other common forms of CSOs (public associations, foundations, institutions), their re-registration has not been announced, although many public associations will still have to amend their charters or register local branches due to the amendments to the Law on Public Associations introduced on February 14, 2023.