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Pearce reaches out to Belarus

Sen. Tom Udall’s trip to Cuba during the congressional recess two weeks ago grabbed most of the headlines, but Rep. Steve Pearce also spent the break talking about American values in an authoritarian country.

The New Mexico Republican traveled to Belarus, an isolated former Soviet bloc country often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship under the longtime rule of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Pearce flew alone to Belarus on a mission trip paid for by Capitol Ministries, a Washington-based evangelical group whose website says it “provides Bible studies, evangelism and discipleship to political leaders.”

Capitol Ministries was founded in 1996 and has started ministries in over 37 state capitals, including Santa Fe. Pearce now holds the distinction of being the first member of the U.S. Congress to address the Belarusian Parliament.

In a telephone interview, Pearce said Belarus is eager to improve relations with the U.S. and had extended an invitation to Capitol Ministries for a member of Congress to address the country’s leadership. Pearce, whom Capitol Ministries describes “as a leading congressional sponsor,” got the nod.

“They were looking for someone conservative, who was Christian and who could talk about serving our country from those perspectives,” he said. “I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to talk about us and our values.”

Pearce said the notoriously insular Eastern European country nestled between Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia, seems to be opening up — at least somewhat.

“Generations have grown up with no belief in God,” he said. “They wanted to explore that a bit and they want to become closer to the U.S. They were amazed about the part in my speech about the Founding Fathers and the role freedom of religion played and that it basically drove people to this country and to set up the government.

“They were interested in the whole concept,” he added. “I talked to them about truth and trust and those basically come from the Ten Commandments.”

Belarus might be slowly transforming, but Lukashenko is routinely criticized for human rights violations and the country remains subject to both American and European Union sanctions.

According to Human Rights Watch’s most recent report on the country, “governmental harassment of human rights defenders, independent media, and defense lawyers continues, including through arbitrary bans on foreign travel. At this writing (in 2013), at least 12 political prisoners remain jailed. Allegations of torture and mistreatment in custody persist.”

Pearce met with State Department officials before his trip and said their view of Belarus seems outdated.

“I didn’t find the State Department’s perceptions to be accurate,” he said. “They had told me there is no freedom of religion yet the pastors I met with over there said it is a little tedious to get registered but once you’re registered they let you do what you want and don’t break you up or anything like that.”

He said the United States trades and associates itself with countries that are far worse in terms of human rights than Belarus, citing China as an example. He also said America’s decision to freeze Belarus out is misguided given its geographic proximity to and close relationship with Russia.

“I understand they are doing things that are atrocious – and they would admit it,” Pearce said. “But they say they can’t change overnight and I was pretty sympathetic to that. We’ve got good friends of ours we trade with every day who do equal or worse things.

“The president of Belarus negotiated peace with Ukraine,” he added. “He can reach between Russia and the West. I think we need to look at the potentials and understand that, yeah, we don’t agree with that but we don’t agree with a lot of things going on in China or the world.”

Pearce said he was gratified by the Belarusian hospitality and impressed by the pride its citizens take in their country.

“They are an industrious people and they were a friendly people,” he said.

But don’t expect a thaw in relations between the U.S. and Belarus anytime soon. The State Department’s website notes that 70 percent of Belarus’ economy is still under state control.

“The United States continues to call for elections that comply with Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe standards, and for the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners,” the website says. “The United States has imposed a variety of sanctions against Belarusian officials and entities for, among other reasons, violations of human rights and non-proliferation issues.”