The religious sphere: The calm before the storm

Natalia Vasilevich


In 2016 the policy of state control over the religious sphere continued, the authorities rarely used brutal pressure and repression against religious communities, limiting the activities of religious organizations primarily in bureaucratic ways. In early 2016 there was a traditional conflict of the Commissioner for religious affairs with the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church because the government was not satisfied with the personnel policy of the latter. In the Orthodox Church, especially concerning the Minsk diocese, staff and structural changes continued, and a large organization, the Publishing house of the Belarusian Exarchate, was closed down.

In February there was a meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Havana, and in June there was the Sacred and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church on Crete.

Legislation and institutions: do not change norms, allow grace

Human rights defenders consistently criticize the Belarusian legislation in the sphere of freedom of religion and regulation of religious organizations. When in 2015 Belarus was considered within the framework of the second cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United Nations, human rights organizations made an alternative report, 1 where serious problems in the sphere of freedom of religion were mentioned, including the requirement for mandatory registration of religious organizations and the existence of criminal responsibility for activity without registration; restrictions on religious activity of foreign citizens, etc.

Although within the UPR Belarus adopted the recommendation of the Holy See on the necessity “to take measures to prevent restrictions on freedom of religion and belief and to ensure more stringent exercising of the right to free expression and freedom of association”, no changes in the legislation and law enforcement practices in this area were included in the Interdepartmental Plan for the Implementation of the Recommendations adopted by the Republic of Belarus on completion of the second cycle of the UPR in the UN Council on human rights, and recommendations addressed to Belarus by the treaty bodies on human rights for 2016–2019 2 adopted by the Council of Ministers in October 2016. The only event suggested by the government in connection with the accepted recommendation in the sphere of religion was the development and implementation of educational programs for journalists on promoting interfaith peace and accord and the holding of a thematic art contest (Article 58).

There were isolated cases of brutal repressions for violating the mass events procedure: members of a Christian community in Minsk were brought to administrative responsibility for participation in the night prayer without the permission of the Minsk city administration. 3 The tension concerning the authorization of religious activities during 2015 and 2016 partly decreased: the authorities offer to religious organizations to rent large state facilities built for the world hockey championship. Čyžoŭka-arena, for example, hosted wide-ranging Christian social and religious events “Global Leadership Summit” and “Prayer for Belarus”.

As for the rights of foreign citizens, the authorities created a conflict situation in relation to the Catholic Church: the Commissioner without reason refused to approve the activities of three Roman Catholic priests who are citizens of Poland. However, after the application of the curia of Minsk-Mahiliou Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church the decree on inconsistencies was cancelled.

Protestant religious associations also witness some warming: a Swedish preacher, Carl-Gustaf Severin, who had been denied entry into the country for at least 15 years, could finally visit Belarus and held a big conference in spring 2016. Also there were no problems with two visits of Buddhist Lama Ole Nydahl.

Despite the fact that in certain cases authorities may consider requests of religious communities and allow the holding of mass events or services of foreign religious figures, the very norms that govern such aspects of activities of religious organizations have a sanctionable function of state bodies moving the emphasis from guaranteeing these rights to religious organizations to the function of ‘allowing’ or ‘denying’ the rights which primarily belong to the state authorities. It makes religious organizations dependent on the state and strictly controlled by it.

The Orthodox Church: more walls and fewer bridges

In 2016, one of the great events in the life of the Orthodox world happened in June on Crete when the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church was held which had been prepared for almost a century. Archbishop Guryj of Navahrudak from the Belarusian Exarchate, a former managing Director of the Belarusian Exarchate was included into the Russian Orthodox Church delegation. Two weeks before the opening of the sessions of the Synod, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church decided not to participate in it and insisted on the transfer of the event for a later date. Similar decisions were also taken by the Antiochian Synod, by Georgian and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches. But in spite of this, the Synod was held with the participation of delegations of ten local churches and adopted a number of documents, reception of which goes on now among those churches that sent their delegations to the Synod as well as among those that refused to participate.

If the Ukrainian authorities tried to use the Synod as a means to call for the canonical solution of the problem of the divided Ukrainian Orthodoxy, and it was this aspect that was in the focus of Ukrainian media, for the Belarusian authorities, society and church environment it remained almost invisible. In pre-synodic times in the Orthodox Church (in Russia and in Ukraine) anti-Synod and antiecumenical movements started however they were not recorded in Belarus.

Belarusian Orthodox believers paid much attention to the meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Havana in February. Despite the fact that the meeting was mostly diplomatic there were sporadic protests of anti-Catholic and antiecumenical forces. In February, after the Havana meeting, hegumen Amvrosij (Tarasiuk), a rural dean of one of the monasteries in Navahrudak eparchy stopped commemorating Patriarch Kirill as a sign of non-recognition of his legitimacy. In December, he officially broke the liturgical relationship with the local Bishop Guryj, and also appealed to believers to move away from prayer relationship with the heretics. Rather soft measures were applied to Tarasiuk: on December 23, the ecclesiastical court suspended him from service for a period of one year.

The Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Church reacted to the draft resolution prepared in December by the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Belarus On approval of rules of medical ethics and deontology. The project, among other requirements to the dress code of health and pharmaceutical workers (Article 7) contained a ban on the demonstration of religious affiliation, i.e. the open wearing of religious symbols. In his letter to the Minister of Health Metropolitan Pavel argued his position against such a requirement appealing to the right to free expression of religious beliefs, guaranteed by the Constitution (Article 33) and the Law of the Republic of Belarus On freedom of conscience (Article 5). In addition, he referred to the cooperation program between the Ministry of Health and the Belarusian Orthodox Church, signed in 2003, and the threat of religious conflicts in the society and protests of the believers. 4 In the end, a ban on the display of religious affiliation was removed from the draft decree.

In fact, for the first time, the Church was successful at influencing the legislation, though not in the most fundamental issue. It should be noted that when a similar case was heard in the European court of human rights (Case of Eweida and Others v. the United Kingdom), 5 in the case of nurse Ms Chaplin, where a medical institution did not allow her to wear a religious symbol – a cross. The European court found that there was no violation of freedom of religion in that case because the specifics of medical practice implies the need to adhere to certain sanitary and hygienic rules, so the limit for wearing any additional accessories can be introduced in some institutions.

Another noteworthy event was the arrest of priest Kanstancin Burykin. This priest ‘with swastikas’, who in former times was in charge of Russian nationalist organizations and still kept in touch with them, and in recent years he headed the Federation of powerlifting, was arrested and placed into custody. 6 He was suspected of possession of ammunition. The same day he was banned to hold church service.

Personnel and organizational reformation of the Belarusian Exarchate continued. Those independent projects that had existed in previous years, were more and more minimized. A. Dzikhcijeuski, the creator and longtime leader of the St. Michael brotherhood which acted in Krupieck temple and held a number of independent projects, mostly pro-Russian and in a traditional style, was removed from the board. An ecumenical international educational direction, which previously was included in the Christian education center under the direction of R. Daugiala ceased to exist. After his dismissal the center focused on smaller local projects.

The publishing house of the Belarusian Exarchate after the change of leadership (U. Hrozau) for a number of reasons was unable to reach profitable self-employment and actually was attached to the St Elizabeth monastery. However, the publishing house, in contrast to many other projects, even managed to build up power with the arrival of the new leadership, demonstrated a significant viability and sustainability, obviously, because of the large number (several thousand people) of employed people there, who are loyal to the direct management of the monastery.

A key concern of the Church leadership was the construction of a new administrative center of the BOC on Vyzvaliennie street (in fact it is the extension of the building of Minsk diocesan administration, constructed in the 1980s), which would require to demolish houses No. 6, No. 6A and No. 8, which are included in the list of historical and cultural values in spite of their ramshackle state. In April, the Ministry of Culture refused Metropolitan Pavel in his request to exclude these buildings from the list. 7 Nevertheless, it was the construction of this complex that was the main topic of the discussion of the December General meeting of the Minsk diocese, and in the final document it was emphasized that “the state of works on designing and preparation of construction of a new church and a multi-function spiritual-educational complex of buildings of Minsk Exarchy along Rakauskaja and Vyzvaliennie streets is approved”. 8 The construction of this complex promises to be one of the main subjects of the internal life of the BOC for years to come.

The Roman Catholic Church: constructing boundaries

The warming of relations between the Belarusian regime and the Roman Catholic Church, which happened after the visit of cardinal Bertone to Belarus in 2008, did not confirm many of the promises and expectations. Since 2008 three nuncios has changed: Martin Vidović was replaced by initiative of Claudio Gugerotti, and in 2016 new nuncio Gábor Pintér was appointed. The Pope did not visit Belarus (although, according to the statements of the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, his visit is approaching with every passing day), and the concordat – the agreement with the Vatican was not concluded. The meeting of the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow (President Lukashenko had repeatedly expressed the wish for such an event to take place in Belarus) finally took place not in Belarus but on Cuba. Now this unthinkable meeting will not be so exclusive as to attract the world's attention to Belarus.

From year to year the story of the ‘attacks’ on Catholics from the side of the Commissioner for Religious and Ethnic Affairs continues. It happens due to the dissatisfaction of the authorities with the personnel policy of the Catholic Church, which causes public criticism and manipulation of the resolution on ministry of priests from abroad. Despite the fact that the number of foreign priests is diminishing annually (their number decreased from 146 to 120 during 2012–2016), personnel policy of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus remains the subject of criticism: the style and manner of claims to the RCC leadership are unbalanced and rough, often with the use of negative wording (e. g. “destructive work among the population”) when the activity of priests is described.

The leadership of the Roman Catholic Church responded to the ‘attacks’ quietly but firmly. In conflict situations with the statements of the Commissioner, the Conference of Catholic bishops of Belarus made a statement where the autonomy of the Catholic Church regarding its personnel and educational policies was strongly emphasized: it is “an exclusively internal matter of the Catholic Church”. 9 Such measures ensured that scandalous remarks from the Commissioner stopped. As for the situation with the non-renewal of the authorization to the service of three priests, the Curia of Minsk-Mahiliou Archdiocese also issued a statement 10 trying to draw public attention to the unwarranted refusal by the state authorities and the pressure had its fruits: the Commissioner had to agree to the resolution.

Both situations demonstrate that the positioning of the religious organization of its autonomy, in a sense – sovereignty, forces the government to make concessions. Although such autonomy is not supported by the functioning of the legal field: still lots of competences concerning staff policies depend on the will of the state. But in specific cases the Roman Catholic Church learned to preserve the boundaries of its autonomy, each time reacting to their intersection. Thus a religious organization appears in a position of civil community.

The challenge now is to determine the relationship with the civil community: there was a conflict between the two sides concerning the green zone of Kotauka in Minsk, where the Catholic parish received a site for construction. Environmental organizations and local residents organized a protest and as a result the Catholic parish had to change the construction site of the building.


The state will continue to excert control over the activity of religious organizations, especially in conditions of a growing social instability. Nevertheless, the possibility of visa-free entry and a five-day stay in Belarus will help preachers to visit Belarus more intensively, which cannot be controlled by the state.

The BOC will conduct negotiations and confrontation with the government on financial and property issues. At the same time, the Catholic Church will strengthen its position in relation to the authorities and try to use the weakness of the regime, to finally get – now on its own terms – the promised concordat and the visit of the Pope to Belarus.