Churches and the State: Ten years after the law On religion

Natallia Vasilevich


In 2012, ten years after the adoption of the new version of the law On freedom of conscience, the state still tightly controls religious activities. Religious organizations, especially the Protestants that used to actively fight for their rights, tended to adjust to the existing conditions. Despite the participation of the Churches in public discussions about some legal initiatives, they confined themselves to a narrow list of issues: demography, family values, morality and abortion. This position is becoming more definite and systematic, it is drawing more and more public response but it has little influence on the state policy. The Belarusian Orthodox Church saw structural (on the highest level) and personnel (on the mid-level) transformations closely connected with the probable changes in the management of the Belarusian Exarchate. The arrival of the new representative of the Vatican in Belarus did not boost relations between the authorities and the Roman Catholic Church, including preparations for the concordat or the Vatican’s mediation in negotiations with the West.

General situation

According to the Commissioner for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, the number of religious organizations has not changed significantly and their number equals 3416.1 The largest number of communities is in the Belarusian Orthodox Church (in 2012 they grew from 1567 to 1594), but the actual number of Orthodox worshipers in Belarus remains unknown as neither the authorities nor the Church keep any statistical records. In contrast, Catholics have the official data of the number of worshipers – 1 million 402 thousand 605 people 2 (which makes over 14% of the entire population), but the calculation methods and their validity are not specified.

The “measurements” conducted by the Information and Analytical Centre under the Administration of the President seem doubtful, too. According to them, 93.5% of the population relate themselves to some denomination: 81% to the Orthodox, 10.5% to the Catholic and 2% to others, whereas only 11.5% of all respondents “are religiously active.” 3 97% of all respondents underline that “the representatives of destructive cults do not violate rights and freedoms of the citizens.” The question if the authorities do was not included into the survey.

Freedom of religion and belief

The key regulatory document for religious organizations is the adopted in 2002 law On freedom of conscience and religious organizations, which puts them into an “invisible ghetto.”4 Analysts point out that the number of reports on cases of oppression is growing less.5 Although early in the year there was a violent attack on the house of pastor Antony Bokun, the year rounded up with the end of the long-lasting conflict around the New Life Church; by doing so, the authorities met the resolution of the European Parliament of 2009.6

The law of 2002 tightened state control over religious organizations and stimulated the latter to fight for their rights. After ten years both these processes subsided. The control has not relaxed but conflicts became less sharp; religious organizations, mainly the Protestant, which used to be in the “line of fire”, started settling them without public and media attention.

Tension is increased by article 193-1 of the Criminal Code stipulating the liability for operations of an unregistered organization, among others of a religious character. No criminal proceedings were started based on this article, but a number of people received a warning from the Prosecutor’s Office, e. g. the Suzko family from Mazyr, Homiel region. The majority of such cases did not become public.

The general decreasing tendency touched the campaign For Freedom of Belief that was closed after collecting only 715 signatures on the Internet.7 despite that in 2008 they collected over 50 thousand signatures for changes into the law On freedom of conscience and religious organizations. The human rights activities abandoned the form of campaigns and focused on legal work and cooperation with civil society. For example, at the OSCE meeting they presented a letter On the need to decriminalize activities connected with the realization of the right for freedom of association and freedom of religion in Belarus.8

In 2012, another issue related to religious practicing became topical when the authorities declared the Sunday of 11 March a working day, though the reaction of the Churches was not that radical. On the eve of the Orthodox Easter the authorities organized a national subbotnik (community work day).

The authorities continued the practice of controlling mass religious festivals with special entry system, instances of body search, extraordinary police control both at major religious holidays and at single festivals, e. g. Budslau fest. The law enforcers were performing both security and ideological functions, for example they arrested the pilgrim at Budslau fest for wearing a T-shirt with the image of pastor Bahatkevich. After the explosion in the underground in 2011 these measures were of an extraordinary character, but with time they turned regular, similar to those during political rallies, when the meeting places are surrounded by rails and the law-enforcers conduct body searches. These security measures perform not only the functions of control but also create a specific psychological atmosphere.


Whereas the extraordinary security measures stirred little dissatisfaction, the forced fingerprinting was received with strong opposition. Already back in 2011 several Orthodox priests were made administratively liable for refusal to undergo fingerprinting, but only in 2012 these cases were featured in the media.9 The issue was raised in early 2012 at the meeting of Minsk eparchy, which nevertheless failed to formulate the official standpoint; the protests were of a spontaneous and individual nature and discussions around the issue were held within the religious discourse, not within the human rights sphere. The Synod of the BOC adopted a statement on the problem, of a rather fragmentary nature, attempting “to formulate its position not in the spiritual but rather in the legal dimension.”10

Health care, demography and abortion

The Orthodox and Catholic Churches tended to play a more significant role in the social sphere, including their criticism of the legislation. In 2011, the law On reproductive technologies was passed, and the Churches came out with its criticism separately. In 2012, the draft law On health care sparked new discussions but the Churches focused on the issue of abortion and returned to the questions of reproductive technologies, once again confining themselves to a narrow circle of issues. Their position drew a wide response, but, as in case with the previous law, their influence onto the legislation was minimal. The Council of Ministers made some minor amendments to the procedure of abortion by eliminating a number of “social factors” for abortion between the 13th and the 22nd pregnancy weeks.11 But these abortions make only up to 8% of all operations (including abortions for medical reasons). The forecast is that in the medium term this group of abortions will be carried out at earlier terms. Therefore, the victory is rather tactical than strategic.

Morality and feelings of the believers

Much greater response from the authorities was paid to the protests of believers and, in some regions, of church administrations, against the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Despite that the artwork is differently received even among the Orthodox, for example, in Russia the church authorities were against its prohibition, in Belarus the shows were cancelled. The issue of “the feeling of the believers” was raised in the scandal with the band Pussy Riot that also transferred into the Belarusian public sphere.

Political prisoners

The democratic society expected the churches to voice support for the political prisoners and even help release them. The Catholic Church was reserved in expressing its position: Metropolitan Kandrusevich commented on Kavalenka’s hunger strike,12 priest Piotra Rudkouski reflected on the priorities of the church. The latter declared that “there are a number of problems, of more terrible nature, that require more positive counteractions, such as abortion and reproductive technologies.” He observed that despite the existing problem of political prisoners the public should not interpret the missing statement on this issue as “the key criterion of the social and ethical mission of the Catholic Church.”13 Nevertheless, the papal representative in Belarus, archbishop Gugerotti, visited a number of political prisoners in late September “as a mark of respect for the universal moral authority of the Holy Father and humanitarian activities of the Holy See, within bilateral diplomatic relations.”14 As for the Belarusian Orthodox Church, the public expectations turned vain. Nevertheless, the Church did stand up for political prisoners, not Belarusian though. The BOC top administration was so active in pleading for Abbot Ephraim of Vatopedi (arrested for alleged fraud and embezzlement) that the Ecumenical Patriarch had to issue an official announcement against the interference into the jurisdiction and borders of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.15

Belarusian Orthodox Church

Relations between the state and the Church remained stable despite the conflicts about fingerprinting, criticism of the law On public health, non-endorsed construction of church buildings (30–40%) and “unlicensed retail sale of religious items and precious metals outside church buildings and territories.”16 In 2012, the BOC received over EUR 3 million for education only.17

The BOC also tried to emulate the new trend in the Russian Orthodox Church within Patriarch Kirill’s policy: to divide eparchies and create Metropolitan okrugs (administrative units). At the January Synod there was a proposal to divide Viciebsk eparchy, which would have raised the status of archbishop Dzmitry, among others as a potential candidate for the post of Exarch. This proposal was not developed further. To counterbalance the trend, that Synod set a new trend – to restructure the Exarchate by introducing the Executive Office with archbishop Gurias as its head.18 Known as a “monk” and “prayer sayer” he turned into a manager and sky-rocketed both personally and institutionally through greater powers of the executive body under his supervision. He received the Spiritual Revival Award, initiated significant structural and personnel changes in Minsk Theological Academy and Seminary, of which he also became head. He gave a resounding interview about the Uniate Church,19 which kicked off the anti-Uniate campaign. The Synod of the BOC adopted a number of resolutions to honor Metropolitan Siamashka and establish a remembrance day for the Polack Sabor of 1839. Two visits of the influential Orthodox hierarchs – Metropolitan Hilarion and Patriarch Kyrill 20 – allowed strengthening the positions of archbishop Gurias and archpriest Feodor Povny, which are in some opposition to the Synod.[21]

Roman Catholic Church in Belarus

Despite the opinion of some Belarusian analysts that the Vatican could be an intermediary in Belarus–Europe dialogue,22 relations between the state and the Church, though rather intensive in 2008–2009, kept declining. The conclusion of the concordat dragged out 23, and even the new nuncio Gugerotti did not manage to liven it up. The position of the foreign priests remains critical, and they make up a significant part of the priestly pool (146 out of 439). 24

Belarusian Greek Catholic Church

The wave of the anti-Uniate campaign raised by archbishop Gurias 25 became especially topical with the visit of a functionary from the Congregation for the Oriental Churches that took place in 2012 but did not help the Belarusian Uniates to meet their critical need for the bishop and establish the canonical structure. According to Archbishop Cyril Vasil, the question of developing the structure of the BGCC is important but “it is still too early to speak about concrete forms, methods and time of its resolution.”26 The similar opinion was expressed by nuncio Gugerotti, who stressed that the best strategy is building the structure of the BGCC from the bottom rather than from the top.27


The following trends are going to develop further, unless any force majeure events intervene.

Firstly, changes in the legislation restraining the sphere of religion will not occur. The oppression is likely of be of a consistent but not violent character so that the authorities can maintain control over the field without provoking conflicts.

Secondly, the state is highly probable to continue the policy of ignoring the position of the Churches on essential social issues by making skin-deep concessions to control disputable situations and counter criticism.

Thirdly, the new round of liberalization and revival of the western vector might involve the Catholic Church, though moderately.

Fourthly, in the Belarusian Exarchate the “group of Gurias” and that of archpriest Povny will gather momentum, which could create controversy inside the administration that is about to undergo a certain transformation.