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2003 “concordat” with Belarus gives Orthodox Church more power, but full extent unknown

The Belarusian Orthodox leader, Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk, hailed the 2003 concordat as "a blank cheque to develop co-operation programmes with all branches of power". (There are 14 so far.) The secret draft proposal of this contained anti-constitutional provisions such as immunity from prosecution for Orthodox clergy and media censorship powers for the Church. While these are not in the final version, there is concern that they may reappear in secret agreements.

2003 agreement with Belarusian Orthodox Church seen as wide-ranging

Whereas in Russia the Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) has been concluding concordat-style agreements with various organs of state gradually over seven years, in neighbouring Belarus it has just won far more extensive influence in the affairs of a greater number of state bodies at one fell swoop. Separate agreements had already been made with the Penitentiary Service and the Border Guards. This concordat extends the collaboration to more government bodies, including the Ministries of Education, Culture, Health, Labour, Information, Internal Affairs, Defence, Natural Resources, and the Ministry for Emergencies.

The new Belarusian concordat goes much further than existing laws on religion and lower-level co-operation agreements with the Orthodox Church in both Georgia and Russia. It introduces into the legal terminology of the state several key concepts vigorously promoted by the Moscow Patriarchate since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Limits on religious competition?

In three articles, in particular, the Church appears to strengthen its position against the religious competition. Article 1 guarantees the Orthodox Church "right of ecclesiastical jurisdiction on its canonical territory" which could make it difficult for others to build houses of worship. Also worrisome to other denominations is Article 2, which endorses "the common fight against pseudo-religious structures". And while Article 4 maintains simply that the agreement "does not have the aim of harming the rights of any confessions or citizens," it does not rule this out as its consequence. 
State guards own interests

On the contentious matter of giving back to the Church land confiscated during the Communist era, the concordat is silent. It poses no challenge to the existing legal limits on returning property claimed by the Church. This is Article 30 of the [2002] Belarusian law on religion which does not press for restitution of properties now “used as objects of culture, physical culture and sport".

Concern over possible secret agreements

Concern has been expressed by the Belarusian Member of Parliament Ivan Pashkevich that, in view of the autocratic style of government in Belarus, one cannot know whether the published church-state agreements are the only ones. Nor can one be sure that there will not be secret agreements in the future. News leaked out about unconstitutional provisions in the unpublished draft Agreement and, while these have been shelved for now, no one knows if there might be later agreements with individual state bodies which will be closed to public scrutiny, (as were the Secret Supplements in the Vatican concordats with Dollfuss and Hitler).,

Source: Geraldine Fagan, “Belarus: New concordat gives Orthodox enhanced status”, Forum 18 News Service, 24 June 2003.


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