For more than a decade, an authoritarian regime has muzzled religious freedom in this former Soviet republic.

Among the restrictions: Religious activity by groups not registered with the government is deemed illegal and is subject to stiff fines or up to two years in prison. Foreigners are forbidden from leading religious organizations. Religious literature is subject to government censorship.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) lists Belarus on its watch list of six nations that require close monitoring because of religious-freedom violations. The nation of 10 million people, sandwiched between Poland and Russia, is home to Europe's most repressive religion laws, according to USCIRF.

So it surprised some observers when President Alexander Lukashenko signed a decree December 1 exempting registered religious organizations from taxes on land and property.

The decree included an appendix listing more than 3,000 churches and other religious groups freed from taxes.

But viewed together with a December 31 law making it a crime to criticize the government before international organizations—punishable by up to two years in prison—the overall situation "looks very troubling," said USCIRF vice chair Felice Gaer. "You're giving with one hand, taking with the other."

The tax breaks appear suspicious on the eve of presidential elections slated for March 19, said Elizabeth Kendal, principal researcher and writer for the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission. Lukashenko is running for a third six-year term.

"The tax relief is purely a pre-election sweetener to seduce some of those disaffected worshipers who are stressed by constant persecution," Kendal told ct.

Lukashenko has been "confused" ...

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