19 August 2020

Where is the Church in
the protests in Belarus, and
has it links with the state?

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has often attended All Saints Church, Minsk, but has described himself as an ‘Orthodox atheist’ (Photograph: Siarhei Leskiec / Belarus Digest)

Patrick Comerford

As street protests and political unrest continue to spread throughout Belarus following the recent presidential elections, what about the religious beliefs of people in Belarus?

I have wondered what is the Church saying in Belarus, and why priests are not seen on the streets of Minsk in the same way priests were seen on the streets of Kiev during similar civil disturbances in neighbouring Ukraine six years ago?

Christianity is the main religion in Belarus, and the Belarus Orthodox Church is the largest single religious group. However, the legacy of state atheism means a large number of Belarusians have no religious affiliation or identity.

The most recent estimates by the Ministry of the Interior say 48% of Belarusians are Orthodox Christians, 41% have no religion or are atheists or agnostics, 7% are Catholics in either the Roman Catholic Church, which has close ties with Poland, or the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church, a ‘uniate’ church re-established in Belarus in the early 1990s. Another 3.5% are members of other religions, including a small number of Jewish and Muslim communities.

Other statistics say 59% per cent of Belarusian people are Orthodox Christians. However, reports say many Orthodox churches empty and that as few as 18 per cent of Orthodox church members, or 5 to 10% of the population, regularly attend church services.

With such a low level of engagement by people with Church life, state support has become important in helping the Orthodox Church to hold onto its prominent role in public and civil life in Belarus.

Like other religious traditions, the Orthodox Church suffered severely during Communist rule. But, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of an independent Belarus, the Orthodox Church has become one of the important pillars of the state ideology in modern-day Belarus.

No other churches or religious traditions come close to the profile and influence the Orthodox Church enjoys in Belarus. The Orthodox Church signed an agreement with the government in 2004, giving it obtain exclusive rights of influence in the fields such as education, health care, and crime prevention.

The main church building in Minsk is the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, built in the 1630s and 1640s. But one of the most splendid buildings in the capital is All Saints’ Church, completed in 2008.

The BBC reported during a visit to Vatican in 2009 President Lukashenka described himself as an ‘Orthodox atheist.’ He has attended several celebrations in All Saints’ Church with his youngest son.

However, the Belarusian Orthodox Church is not independent and is totally integrated into and fully subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church.

After the recent conflicts in Ukraine, some sections of the Belarusian Church have expressed an interest in self-governance and separation from Moscow. But, unsurprisingly, there is no positive response from the Patriarchate of Moscow or other sections of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Belarusian Orthodox Church is officially the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus, similar to a province with a modified autonomy, but not a separate church. It represents 11 Russian Orthodox eparchies or dioceses in Belarus and is the largest religious organisation in Belarus.

The leader of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Pavel (Ponomaryov) of Minsk, is a Russian who was born in Kazakhstan in 1952. He succeeded Metropolitan Philaret who stepped down in 2013. His detractors say he congratulated Lukashenko on his recent victory, even before the official results were announced.

The Church enjoys a much smaller degree of autonomy compared to the neighbouring Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is semi-autonomous and which has remained part of the Russian Orthodox Church since the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine last year.

Easter celebrations in a church in Zaskavichy, near Minsk (Photograph: Siarhei Leskiec / Belarus Digest)

The Belarusian Orthodox Church strongly opposes the tiny and largely emigrant-based and much-smaller Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. It accuses the BAOC of using the present crisis to accuse the larger, mainstream Church of collaboration and to call on Belarusian people to demand separation from the Russian Orthodox Church and establish their own group.

The BAOC was first formed in Minsk in 1922 by people who once belonged to the Polish Orthodox Church, which was granted autocephaly by Constantinople after World War I. This Church survived in Belarus until 1938, when it was destroyed by the Soviet authorities. It was revived among exiles in the US in the late 1940s, and since the fall of the Soviet Union it has attempted to re-establish itself in Belarus.

On Thursday last [13 August 2020], Metropolitan Epiphany Dumenko, the Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, called on the Belarusian people to ‘request a tomos from the Mother Church,’ referring to the decree from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople that granted self-rule or autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in January 2019.

‘These days, the people of Belarus are suffering greatly – our neighbours, with whom we have had many centuries of common ecclesiastical and state history,’ Metropolitan Epiphany said.

He says the Belrusian Church, like the Ukrainian Church, had been annexed in the past by the Patriarchs of Moscow and that moves like this ‘continue to have tragic consequences for Orthodoxy throughout Eastern Europe.’

‘The future of the Belarusian people, the independence of the state, the freedom and security of citizens and their lives are under threat,’ he writes. He says the Orthodox Church of Belarus ‘has the same reasons and right to request’ a decree from the Ecumenical Patriarchate or ‘Mother Church’ similar to that granted to his own church.

However, Metropolitan Pavel of Minsk denied earlier last year [January 2019] that there was any real desire for autocephaly in Belarus. He said similar action had caused much trouble in Ukraine,and would mean the destruction of the Church in Belarus.

Last week [14 August], Archbishop Svyatoslav Lohin of the BAOC issued his own appeal to the Belarusian people, calling on them to ‘protect their freedom of choice and the future of their state,’ and accusing the Belarusian Orthodox Church of un-Christian behaviour.

Archbishop Lohin is the sole bishop of the BAOC, and it has three parishes in America, one in Canada, three in Australia (Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth), and one in England (Manchester). It has no official churches in Belarus, although there are religious communities there.

While the whole civilised world stands with those who ‘defend their dignity and their voice in the presidential elections in Belarus … unfortunately, not all Christian churches in Belarus support and pray for their people,’ Archbishop Lohin says.

Despite these claims, Metropolitan Pavel has said this week that prayers are being offered for the Belarusian people and land in every church and monastery in his Church, and he has called on the Belarusian authorities and people to find a peaceful solution to the present crisis. The Holy Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Church made the same call in a statement on Saturday [15 August 2020].

Moreover, the Church says, its clergy and laity are busy collecting medicine, food and hygiene products for people who have been injured and detained during the protests over the past two weeks.

Easter celebrations in a church in Zaskavichy, near Minsk (Photograph: Siarhei Leskiec / Belarus Digest)

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