In its pursuit of economic profit, a human rights activist from Minsk warns, the European Union appears increasingly inclined to "close its eyes" to the continuing violation of human rights in Belarus, a neglect by the West that Denis Gil' says will almost certainly guarantee that the situation in his homeland will become even worse.
Gil told workshops in Tallinn and Helsinki last week that claims by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka notwithstanding, "the situation of freedom of conscience not only has not improved but new restrictions for the free activity even of registered churches and church unions have arisen (www.baznica.info/index.php?name=Pages&op=page&pid=6007 ).
One of the reasons for this, the activist continued, is that Lukashenka's regime has created "an artificial legal paradox" regarding religion. According to the 2002 law on freedom of conscience, "all religious activity is prohibited without government registration" but groups can register only if they have 20 members, something they cannot achieve legally.
As a result, he pointed out, "only historic churches - Orthodox, Catholic, and in some cases Lutherans and Reformed churches - can register without violating the law. Other Protestant churches," he pointed out, are thus seriously restricted regarding what should be their constitutional and human right to follow their beliefs.
Unfortunately, Gil continued, the Belarusian government's limitations on freedom of religion are far more extensive than even that. Among the others, he noted, were a prohibition of holding religious meetings in rented facilities without the permission of government agencies, a ban on publishing, and a prohibition against training and inviting religious from abroad.
Moreover, he said, a religious organization, the only body that can train religious or invite them from abroad, much include at least 10 religious communities, "one of which has been functioning on the territory of the Belarusian republic for not less than 20 years" - a requirement that excludes almost all faiths.
And in what may be the most restrictive feature of all, Belarusian legislation does not allow religious groups to conduct any kind of religious activity "beyond the borders of the territory of the population point in which the community is registered." Thus all missionary activity is banned.
In addition to these "legal" restrictions, Gil pointed out, the powers that be routinely violate even the few "rights" they say they are prepared to acknowledge that religious groups have, especially those that are not member of what Minsk insists is the "traditional" faith of Belarusians, Russian Orthodoxy.
One expert who took part in the discussions, Dmitry Sargin of Liberty of Faith, said "if Belarus intends to conduct a dialogue with the European Union, then its leadership must accept the norms of civilized political discussion." That is because European countries must display "zero tolerance" toward regimes which "permit internal terrorism toward opposition groups."
Unfortunately, the problem Gil and Sargin pointed to is especially serious now: Not only is the Belarusian regime in no way softening its approach to the basic rights of its people, but there are reports that the opposition there, under pressure from Lukashenka's government, is coming apart (www.ng.ru/cis/2009-11-23/7_belorussia.html).
To the extent that is happening, it will make it even less likely that the opposition will be able to displace the man many call the head of "the last dictatorship in Europe," and it will call into question any policy toward Belarus or toward any other country that puts profits before principle when it comes to the defense of basic human rights.