Moscow (CNSNews.com) - Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is tightening his grip on the former Soviet republic with a further crackdown on religious groups and internal dissent, critics charge.
This week, Lukashenko pledged to turn schools in rural areas into "ideological centers" where teachers are to become "propagandists."
This fall, the Belarus presidential academy is opening an "ideological faculty," but the exact nature of Belarus' official ideology remains unclear.
In 1995, Lukashenko sparked a major controversy when, in an interview with a German newspaper, he praised Adolf Hitler for creating a strong German state and compared his own role to that of the Nazi leader.
In a new blow to basic freedoms, his government late last month introduced a new law restricting demonstrations and other public events.
An earlier draft of the law contained exemptions for religious events, but those were removed in the final text, reportedly on Lukashenko's orders.
Under the new law, religious organizations may be liquidated if they organize events that are deemed to cause any harm to the "public interest" -- even such harm as disrupting public transport.
The Washington-based Institute on Religion and Public Policy denounced the move.
"This new law adds insult to the injury of religious believers in Belarus and yet again unquestionably establishes the Lukashenko regime as the most repressive and totalitarian system in Europe and Eurasia," Institute President Joseph K. Grieboski said in a statement.
This is only the latest move in an ongoing campaign by Belarus to clamp down on religious groups and opposition organizations.
Last October, the government passed controversial amendments to the country's religion law, requiring religious groups to undergo compulsory re-registration over the next two years.
Religious activity by groups not registered with the government is banned, and even religious meetings on private property are forbidden, unless they are occasional and small.
The law also requires compulsory prior censorship for all religious literature, and bans foreign citizens from leading religious organizations.
Publishing and education rights are restricted to faiths that have 10 or more registered communities, including at least one that was registered in Belarus in 1982.
The legislation grants the Orthodox Church -- which lobbied for the law and collected signatures in support of it at its parishes - the status of having a "determining role" in Belarus.
Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Islam are classified as "traditional" faiths.
Lukashenko has repeatedly stated that the Belarus state would "always support" the Orthodox Church.
According to the Belarus Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, there are nearly 3,000 registered religious organizations in Belarus, of which nearly half are Russian Orthodox. The Pentecostal Union and Roman Catholic Church have more than 400 each.
Belarus' religious law has long been criticized internationally.
U.S. Helsinki Commission co-chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) has described it as "repressive legislation, targeting minority religions."
The government has also been accused of trying to smear religious groups.
Last May, the Pentecostal Union urged the withdrawal of a government-sponsored school textbook which equals Pentecostal churches with sects like Aum Shinri Kyo.
Nearly 150,000 copies of the book, for use in public schools, have been printed.
Government-controlled religious broadcasts have included excerpts from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious anti-Semitic text, despite strong protests from the local Jewish community.
Lukashenko in recent months has also moved against foreign charities, humanitarian groups, and both the domestic and foreign media.
Last July, a U.S. nongovernmental educational and media-support organization, IREX, was forced to shut down its operation in Belarus after its application to renew accreditation was denied on grounds it was funding opposition political groups and media.
The move prompted the U.S. Embassy in Minsk to urge the government to abandon a campaign of "strangling the struggling independent media in Belarus."
That same month, authorities closed the Minsk bureau of Russia's NTV television channel, accusing it of slandering Belarus police in its news coverage.
An Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) official dealing with media freedom issues, Freimut Duve, planned to visit Belarus to meet with journalists this week, but was refused a visa.
Duve responded by urging the OSCE, the European Union, and other European institutions and governments to make clear to Belarus their views on its government's dictatorial policies.
A Belarus Foreign Ministry spokesman denied that the official had been barred from visiting, saying the government was interested in cooperating with the OSCE.
Belarus has been an OSCE member since 1992 and is a signatory to all OSCE agreements, although it has in the past denied visa extensions to the organization's officials based in Belarus, accusing the OSCE of interfering in its internal affairs.
See earlier story:
New Belarus Religion Law 'Repressive,' Watchdog Group Says (Nov. 18, 2002)
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.