The State and the Church: Declarative ‘close cooperation’

Natallia Vasilevich


In 2014 in Belarus the religious sphere remained under strict governmental control. Aside from ‘small’ mopping-ups of unregistered groups, there were no headline cases of repression in the religious field, and the conflictual situation due to the arrest of the Roman Catholic priest Lazar was settled by his release. In the public activities the Church again promoted pro-life values.

For the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) 2014 was the first year of a new era with a new head Metropolitan Pavel (Panamarou), whose appointment at the beginning of the year highlighted the topic of the need for a greater independence of the BOC from the Russian center. At the end of the year Metropolitan Pavel suddenly became the mouthpiece of greater self-government, but the issue was quickly ‘closed’. The relations of authorities with the Roman Catholic Church did not see any changes.

General characteristics

Religious affiliation and practice of the Belarusian society has the following features:

  1. low religiosity at loose bounds of religious beliefs with daily life;
  2. multi-religiousness with the quantitative dominance of Orthodoxy and a significant presence of Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism;
  3. the heterogeneity of the quality indicators of religiosity depending on the type of the religion: low religious activity of Orthodox believers, average activity of Catholics and low activity of Protestants;
  4. regional heterogeneity. 1

Despite the colorful confessional palette and a significant number of active Protestants, the major role in the public sphere is played by Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

Legislation and institutions: persecution and lobby

Regarding the suppression of freedom of religion in 2014 Belarusian human rights defenders prepared an alternative report on the procedure of the UN Universal Periodic Review, 2 which in particular says about the following problems in this area:

  1. prohibition of religious activities without state registration according to Article 16 of the law On freedom of conscience and religious organizations and criminal penalties under Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code;
  2. the need for a special permission to conduct religious activities outside religious buildings according to the law On mass events;
  3. restriction of the right to freedom of religion for foreign citizens, as well as the inability for them to head religious organizations and a complicated procedure of inviting foreigners to carry out religious activities;
  4. restriction of religious organizations that are not religious associations. The following recommendations are suggested:

Despite the positive steps taken by the authorities, including consultations conducted with human rights defenders the National Report for the UPR, 3 the problems with the freedom of religion are ignored and there is not even a minimal shift – no confirmation of inviting a special reporter on freedom of religion in Belarus.

Despite the lack of cases of criminal prosecution for religious activities, according to Article 193-1 warnings of the prosecution office were issued and criminal cases were opened, and in 2014 new cases of persecution of unregistered organizations in administrative procedure were registered. Since the corpus delicti for the activities of religious organizations without state registration was excluded from the first part of Article 9.9 of the Administrative Offences Code in 2011, the prosecution was made under other Articles: part 1 and 2 of Article 23:34 – Violation of the established procedure of assembly, organization and conduct of services; Article 21:16 – Violation of the rules of the use of premises. 4

The most pressing issues for the Roman Catholic Church are restrictions on religious activities of foreigners under the special procedure of the approval of an Authorized Representative enshrined in the regulations on the procedure of invitation of foreign citizens and stateless persons in the Republic of Belarus for the purpose of religious activities. The reduction in the number of foreign (especially Polish) Roman Catholic priests in Belarus is a deliberate policy of the Belarusian authorities that in a number of cases deny the obtaining or renewal of a permit for service to priests. While in the case of the head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Pavel (Panamarou) the Belarusian authorities do not take any actions concerning the norms that forbid foreigners to head a religious organization (Article 13 of the law On freedom of conscience) ignoring them and creating ambiguous legal consequences. 5

Thus, it can be stated that repressive legislation regarding religious activities that do not comply with international standards in this area, are combined with the application of additional pressure mechanisms, as well as with a selective use of the law. This allows making repressions selective.

As for the question how churches and religious organizations lobby values, one will see that the greatest attention is paid to pro-life. It is in this area of public policy that one has achieved the most significant results. In particular, a new issue was introduced into Article 27 of the law On health care according to which a doctor may refuse to perform abortions under certain conditions; pre-abortion counseling. Besides, the Ministry of Health narrowed the list of medical indications for abortion. 6

In the framework of anti-abortion campaigns a number of events ranging from street protests to state programs took place. Within the pro-life organizations there are contradictions associated not only with the politicization of the agenda (e.g. the petition of the Belarusian Christian Democrats), but also with a different vision of the activity and competition in connection with various campaigns. As a result an alternative petition 7 calling for a total ban of abortion appeared. The head of Pro-life Belarus movement Ms Tarasevich criticized the event “A Week without Abortions” and pre-abortion counseling which is performed by many pro-life organizations. Contradictions limit the consolidating potential for cooperation between churches and pro-life associations.

In addition, the unprecedented attention to the stance of the Belarusian Orthodox Church was given by parliamentarians in the discussion of the law On burial and funeral processions. Also BOC participated in conferences dedicated to the abolition of the death penalty. In both cases, however, BOC firstly has no clear stance and secondly those issues are not the most important on the agenda, and their discussion is initiated by other entities. The law On alternative service was adopted in first reading without lobbying by churches. According to the new law it is possible to replace military service by an alternative on the basis of religious belief.

Belarusian Orthodox Church

The most significant event in the Belarusian Orthodox Church was the change of its leader: the new Patriarchal Exarch is not connected with the Belarusian Church elites and external to the Belarusian context – Metropolitan Pavel (Panamarou). After his appointment the new Hierarch began a structural reform of the BOC, which generally corresponded to the overall strategy of the Russian Orthodox Church to fragment dioceses and increase bureaucracy.

First, it is necessary to note the establishment of new dioceses – the basic administrative units of the Orthodox Church, whose number increased from 11 to 15 (by a third). The Minsk diocese was divided into four: Minsk, Sluck, Maladziečna and Barysau, 8 and Navahrudak diocese was divided into two: Navahrudak and Lida. 9 New local bishops were elected to head the new dioceses: Anthony (Daronin), Pavel (Cimafiejenkau), Parfiry (Predniuk). A former vicar Venjamin (Tupeka) became a managing Bishop. The change of leadership at the level of the Bishop provides new ways of governance at the local level, as well as at the level of the Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, the structure of which also changes its format.

Second, the fragmentation of the dioceses affects the decentralization of power in the Exarchate but only what concerns parish life, while at the highest level the reverse process of centralization of power takes place. On the one hand, this is because the smaller size of the administrative units gives less weight to their heads; on the other hand, a deliberate process of centralization is carried out, which is associated with the creation of the Minsk Exarchate to manage the BOC. 10 Anthony (Daronin) was appointed a Chancellor of the Minsk Exarchate and since 2014 he has been one of the key figures of the Belarusian Exarchate.

Third, there was an attempt to change the status of the BOC inside of the ROC, which manifested itself in the statement about self-government initiated by the Metropolitan Pavel (or his entourage) on December 16 at the General meeting of the Minsk Metropolis. On the one hand, this step fits into the overall process of the administrative reorganization and centralization of power within the BOC; on the other hand the articulation of this idea identified the emotional support of the aspiration for a greater independence from the ROC among the clergy. However, after the meeting of Metropolitan Pavel with the leadership in Moscow the statement was disavowed, which showed the stance of the Moscow center and the possibilities of the BOC. 11

Fourth, the new Metropolitan initially tried to outline a number of major proposals-requirements for the authorities: abortions only for medical reasons, the prohibition of surrogacy and the restriction of the use of assisted reproductive technologies; permission for a simplified procedure for approval of the allocation and construction of churches for the BOC, reduction of income taxes for taxpayers engaged in helping the BOC, exemption from taxation for the organizations founded by the BOC to carry out statutory activities; recognition of theology at the level of the State Commission for Academic Degrees and Titles (including theological educational institutions); the introduction of a Orthodox culture course in the curriculum of secondary schools; opening of Orthodox schools and kindergartens with state funding; allocation of land for construction and restoration of churches in Minsk, etc.

Despite the fundamental impossibility of most of the points, at the level of declarations Church-State relations remain in the paradigm of ‘close cooperation’: speeches, related to Lukashenko’s policy and his personality, made by Metropolitan Pavel are complimentary. Moreover, the closeness is evident even on a personal level: Metropolitan Pavel settled in Drazdy (the place of the Presidential residency).

Roman Catholic Church

In 2014 a resonant ‘espionage case’ against the priest Lazar was closed. He was released from prison without undue attention. This along with the continuation of the authorization to the service for Roman priest Raman Schultz, one of the priests who earlier had no such permit, reduced the tension of the State's attitude towards the Roman Catholic Church. The tension was removed due to the registration of a new Catholic Academy in January 2015, which was a success only after the third attempt.

In regards to the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus in the framework of the state government policy the authorities try not to step the pressure line, so that, on the one hand, the Catholics are not allowed to ‘relax’, but, on the other hand, sharp conflict and confrontation are avoided. In relations with the Vatican, which is a part of diplomatic policy, the Belarusian authorities are trying to be expressly friendly at least at the level of declarations, putting foreign policy objectives first, leaving the possibility of a ‘Vatican script’ to solve diplomatic problems of the Belarusian regime. Thus the policy has a twofold line of ‘governance and diplomatic relations’. 12


In connection with the structural and personnel transformation of the BOC, new elites and their coalitions will continue their formation. An intense confrontation and the struggle for influence in the new context are observed, which can create instability. Further high-profile personnel changes and appointments, structural reforms aimed at establishing greater control from the Minsk centre are possible. After the disavowal of the statement about the need to raise the status of the BOC up to a self-governing Church, the likelihood of a new attempt in this direction is low.

In relations with the Roman Catholic Church the authorities will continue to exploit its foreign policy potential, especially in the context of the ‘Minsk peace process’. The intensification of relations with the Vatican can lead to situational and strategic benefits of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus, however taking into account the experience of the bilateral relations after 2008 the probability of significant steps is small. However, the period before the Presidential election may witness some populist steps from the authorities.