Freedom of conscience and law — limitations compel to ignoring

EuroBelarus Information Service

The Centre for European Transformation completed a study of how believers percept the Belarusan legislation in the field of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.

The study “Implementation of the international principles of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion in the Belarusan law and practice” was conducted in January and February this year, using the methodology of qualitative research. The study was conducted by the experts of the Centre for European Transformation, in collaboration with the “FoRB Initiative”.

“We tried to understand how the Belarusan law looks like on the part of those who are directly experiencing the action of this law, i.e. on the part of religious communities, active members, and heads of religious associations; tried to understand and see their direct attitude to the law: whether they find the law fair, legal, how they see and whether they see any limitations on the part of the law at all, how often they interact with law, whether it hinders their activity or contributes to it,” Andrei Yahorau, the head of the research, the head of the Center for European Transformation explained in the interview with the EuroBelarus Information Service.

Besides, the researchers have provided an opportunity for the respondents to compare the existing standards of international law and the provisions of the Belarusan legislation. The Belarusan legislation, note the authors of the study, cannot be called sufficiently relevant to the international principles and standards in the field of freedom of religion.

The main areas of non-compliance that the Belarusan lawyers and human rights activists point out is a system of registration of religious organizations: Belarusan legislation establishes mandatory registration of religious organizations, while significantly restricting religious activity by location, by the territory of the activity, whereas a religious community can only act within the administrative-territorial unit, where it is registered.

The second most problematic area is the need to obtain a permit for religious activity for foreign clergy. The questions of missionary activity, mass events, religious mass media, and religious organizations other than communities are strictly regulated in Belarus.

In addition, numerous gaps in legislation produce a situation where public authorities can arbitrarily interpret the law.

The study results do not claim to be universal. The study was conducted with the help of the so-called qualitative methods of sociological information collection: three focus groups with active parishioners and members of different religious communities were conducted as well as ten in-depth interviews with the heads of religious communities and organizations. All in all, representatives of six religious groups served as respondents of the research.

“Clearly, any representation is out of question, and, in general, this study should be seen rather as a pilot and ”intelligence” one,” the authors emphasize. “But we have an opportunity to understand the peculiarities of perception of the Belarusan law in the sphere of freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion more deeply. In this study we are trying to understand what the Belarusan law looks like from the perspective of those who are directly experiencing the action of this law, i.e. from the perspective of the active parish, leaders of religious groups.”

Such discipline as the sociology of law is underdeveloped in Belarus. Meanwhile, Lawrence M. Friedman in 1986 stated: “Law is a massive vital presence in the United States. It is too important to be left to lawyers.” Human consciousness is a space of collapse, sometimes fight of different regulatory fields: the norms of state law, international standards of morality and/or religion. That is why the subject of the study were not the article and limitations recorded in the laws, but the experience of the respondents in their relations with the law, their assessment of the Belarusan legislation and international standards in the sphere of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.

As Andrei Yahorau notes, the preliminary results of the study show that “the majority of religious communities in Belarus somehow faces various constraints on the part of the Belarusan legislation; to a greater extent this applies to denominations that don’t belong to those that are referred to as traditional in the law.” “The Orthodox, Catholics, and Muslims talk less about the difficulties with the law. But, anyway, the representatives of all confessions have some experience of negative law practice, but they take different action strategies, when confronted with this negative interaction,” Andrei Yahorau said.

At the same time, according to experts and competent respondents-lawyers now the situation de facto is better than de jure. Religious communities and the state have adapted to each other and act according to the formula: “You violate, and we pretend that we don’t notice that.” As a result, “over” or “in parallel” with the existing legislation a system of relationships between particular religious communities or their leaders and specific officials is built and issues of community life depend largely on these relationships, not on the current law.

But apart from the obvious problems such as ensuring the freedom of religion, law and practice, and especially the lack of mechanisms for dialogue and change in this area, there are other negative effects: “When faced with the restrictive nature of the law people don’t consider these restrictions to be fair and are trying to work with it using law. However, they are faced with the inability to prove anything with the help of law and then choose to ignore the law. They understand that there is a law, but just ignore it. And these people are quite law-abiding; however, because of the absurd contradictions of Belarusan legal reality and law enforcement they have to choose illegal behaviour strategy and illegal practice.”

 “People find themselves in a deadlock: they are forced to break the law, even though they don’t want it,” emphasized Andrei Yahorau.