Moscow - State pressure on religious groups in the former Soviet republic of Belarus reportedly is increasing, with Baptist pastors among the latest to be punished for leading unregistered denominations.
Since Oct. 2002, amendments to Belarus' religion law require religious groups to undergo compulsory re-registration over a two-year period. Groups that do not register are banned from carrying out religious activities, and most religious meetings on private property are forbidden.
Forum 18, a Norway-based group that monitors religious persecution, reported that several Baptist pastors had been fined for hosting unregistered congregations.
One pastor in the Minsk region, Valeri Trifan, had been fined a total of 183,000 Belarus roubles ($89) over the past two years. The average annual salary in Belarus is estimated to be $128, Forum 18 noted.
About 30 Baptist Union congregations in the country reject state registration, saying it violates church-state separation.
The Baptists are just one of those affected. A number of Pentecostal and other religious groups have also been fined in recent months, Forum 18 said.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom this month added Belarus to a short "watch list" of states requiring close monitoring.
States on the watch list - others are Cuba, Georgia, Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, Uzbekistan and Laos - are those that the USCIRF feels are a problem, but not in the league of major offenders whom the Commission wants designated as "countries of particular concern" - countries like North Korea and Saudi Arabia.
In its most recent report on religious freedom, released last December, the State Department said respect for religious freedom in Belarus had worsened during the period covered (mid-2002-mid-2003).
Criticism has come from others in the U.S., including U.S. Helsinki Commission co-chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), who has called Belarus' religion law "repressive," and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who described the country as "a black hole of authoritarianism" in Europe.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko appears unconcerned by international criticism. Six months ago Belarus introduced a new law allowing religious groups to be liquidated if they organize events seen to harm the "public interest" - even to the degree of disrupting public transport.
According to Yakov Basin, one of the authors of a book on religious freedom in Belarus, only 25 percent of religious groups in the country have been re-registered since the Oct. 2002 law was passed.
Authorities claim only to deny registration to "pseudo-religious" groups such as Aum Shinri Kyo, the Great White Brotherhood, and Satanists.
But the law goes much further, outlawing all unregistered religious activity, requiring compulsory prior censorship of all religious literature, and banning foreign citizens from leading religious organizations.
Publishing and educational work is restricted to faiths that can prove to have at least 10 registered communities or congregations, including at least one that had been registered for at least the past 20 years.
There is also a ban on all but occasional, small religious meetings in private homes.
On a practical level, some Protestants reportedly have been fined for singing hymns or have been prohibited from purchasing property.
Other incidents include a row over a government-sponsored school textbook which equated Pentecostal groups with sects such as Aum Shinri Kyo.
The religion law is widely seen as benefiting the Orthodox Church, which the legislation says has a "determining role" in Belarus. Orthodox clergy lobbied hard for its passage.
The law does, however, also claim to recognize Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Islam as "traditional" faiths.
Last January, the Belarus KGB - the state security apparatus - issued a statement arguing that the Belarus people had lost interest in "non-traditional" religions and sectarian groups.