The Belarusian constitution guarantees religious freedom, but other laws and policies restrict it, according to the International Religious Freedom Report for 2012 released by the US Department of State.
The report was introduced by Secretary of State John Kerry on May 20.
The report says that the trend in the government’s respect for religious freedom did not change significantly in 2012. "The government selectively and arbitrarily targeted religious groups, which led to self-censorship among many members. The government used provisions of the religion law to hinder or prevent activities of groups other than the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC). The law restricts the ability of religious groups to provide religious education and to import freely and distribute religious literature," says the report.
The Department of State accuses the government of harassing members of certain religious groups, "especially those the government regarded as bearers of foreign cultural influence or as having a political agenda." "Foreign missionaries, clergy, and humanitarian workers affiliated with Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church faced numerous obstacles, including deportation and visa refusal or cancellation," the report says.
According to the Department of State, there were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, with most involving religious sites, buildings, and memorials.
The report says that many religious groups continued to experience problems renting, purchasing, or registering properties to establish places of worship.
The US embassy continued to promote religious freedom, the report notes. US embassy staff are said to have maintained regular contact with representatives of religious groups, attended events hosted by religious groups, visited repressed churches, acted against incidents of anti-Semitism, and monitored and followed up on cases of religious. //BelaPAN
Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, expressed hope on Tuesday that Belarus would join the organization and ratify the European Convention on Human Rights.
Speaking at a meeting of the Russian State Duma's international affairs committee in Moscow, Mr. Jagland emphasized the importance of the convention, which he said provides a Europe-wide system of human rights protection, according to Russia's Regnum news agency.
Belarus is the only country in Europe that is not a member of the Council of Europe. The main obstacle for Belarus' accession to the Council is the use of the death penalty.
In 1993, the Belarusian parliament was granted special guest status at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), but was stripped of it in 1996 following a referendum that approved the use of the death penalty in the country.
In June 2009, PACE decided that the Belarusian parliament’s special guest status in the Assembly might be restored only after Minsk imposed a moratorium on the death penalty.
The following year Belarus carried out a number of executions after which PACE advised its members against visiting Belarus.
The use of the death penalty makes it impossible for Belarus to have any status in the Council of Europe, Mr. Jagland told reporters in Strasbourg in January 2012. //BelaPAN
Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, plans to visit Belarus in early June.
Ms. Mijatovic is expected to attend a June 3 workshop for Belarusian journalists on the development of online journalism. The event has been organized by the OSCE media freedom watchdog's office, the Belarusian foreign ministry and other interested government agencies, according to the ministry's press office.
Ms. Mijatovic's previous visit to Belarus came in October 2010. She also wanted to come to the country shortly after the brutal crackdown on the post-election demonstration on December 19, 2010 to study the situation of detained journalists Iryna Khalip and Natallya Radzina. She appealed twice to then Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynaw to help organize her visit, but received no reply.
Ms. Mijatovic has repeatedly criticized the Belarusian authorities for stifling media freedom and persecuting independent journalists. //BelaPAN
A leading opposition politician and a human rights defender have questioned recommendations made by Justas Paleckis, the European Parliament`s rapporteur on Belarus.
In his draft report, which is expected to be debated by the European Parliament this fall, Mr. Paleckis suggests that the European Union suspend the visa ban against key Belarusian officials.
The Lithuanian politician insists in the report that the human rights situation in Belarus improved in 2012.
Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the United Civic Party (UCP), told BelaPAN on Tuesday that Mr. Paleckis was too optimistic about the situation in Belarus. "I don`t understand what facts and what monitoring such conclusions are based on. Absurd arrests continue, trials take place, demonstrations are banned in the country," he said.
Mr. Lyabedzka stressed that the proposal to suspend the sanctions against the Belarusian officials should be backed up with specific arguments.
Minsk should release and exonerate all political prisoners and hold free and fair elections before any sanctions could be suspended, he stressed.
The UCP chairman said that opposition forces would attempt to influence the report`s final version. He noted that the UCP would like the European Parliament`s document to motivate the Belarusian authorities to make steps toward democracy rather than encourage them to continue their crackdown on political opponents.
Human rights defender Valyantsin Stefanovich echoed the opinion, describing the report as too rosy. "Political prisoners remain in prison, no improvements have been made in the sphere of freedom of association, peaceful assembly, the media," he said.
Mr. Stefanovich warned that Minsk should not expect significant concessions on the part of the European Union if it failed to free all political prisoners.
Syarhey Haydukevch, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, said that the organization opposed sanctions against Belarusian officials and supported a dialogue between Minsk and the EU. "Belarus and the EU need a step-by-step strategy of relations. I don’t defend anyone but only care about the country`s citizens," he said. //BelaPAN
Alyaksandr Lukashenka on Tuesday heaped praise on Eurovision contestant Alyona Lanskaya and alleged fraud in Russia's voting in the annual song contest.
Speaking to the 27-year-old singer who was present at his meeting with a group of gifted youths in Minsk, Mr. Lukashenka lauded her performance at the May 18 contest.
Commenting on the results of Eurovision voting in Russia, which gave Ms. Lanskaya zero points, Mr. Lukashenka said, "You can add at least 12 points to your tally. This proves not only how much the contest is politicized but also how much it is falsified," the government's news agency BelTA quoted him as saying.
He also referred to a scandal in Azerbaijan, which is believed to have given zero points to Russia despite singer Dina Garipova coming second in the local vote.
Mr. Lukashenka suggested that Belarus should take the results of Eurovision calmly. "I don't want to suspect the winner of anything or diminish her role. Indeed the girl from Denmark was very good and her show was great, but our girl was as much great," he said.
Belarus placed 16th among the 26 finalists in the Eurovision final, earning 48 points.
Ms. Lanskaya’s song Solayoh got points from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Greece, Israel, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, and Ukraine.
The contest was won by Denmark, with Only Treadrops performed by 20-year-old Emmelie de Forest earning an impressive score of 281 points. // BelaPAN