Religious Affairs: Period of unfulfilled hopes and expectations

Alexander Shramko


In 2019, religious affairs in Belarus were influenced by the tension between local Orthodox Churches after some of them recognized the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). The approaching elections and negotiations with Russia on deeper integration also had their effects. In this situation, the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) may gain its independence from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and ensure a favorable climate for other denominations, or pro-Moscow sentiments may prevail, and the ROC will continue dominating religious life in Belarus.

Churches and the state

The Belarusian government continues to differentiate its approach to various religious denominations, as evidenced by the introduction to the law ‘On the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations’,1 which ranks the historical and cultural significance of the five ‘traditional’ denominations downwards from Orthodoxy to Catholicism and further to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Judaism and Islam, while Belarus currently numbers 26 religious denominations, and all of them are guaranteed equality before law by the mentioned introduction and the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus.

In fact, the rather rigid religious legislation of Belarus is indulgent to the Belarusian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, and is captious to the Catholic Church, not to mention the Protestants and other denominations. Besides, the application of the law can vary significantly in each individual case, depending on the current preferences and tactics of the government. At his meeting with the clergy of the Minsk Diocese of the BOC in December 2018, Belarus’ Commissioner for Religious and Ethnic Affairs Leonid Gulyako explicitly stated this subjective approach as a matter of course.

As for the formal changes in the legislation, the criminal prosecution for unsanctioned religious activity was replaced by administrative liability (new section 23.88 of the Code of Administrative Offenses). Human rights and religious organizations showed a mixed response to this novelty. According to ‘Forum 18’ human rights portal,2 the UN Special Rapporteur of Human Rights Situation in Belarus welcomed the abolition of prosecution for activities on behalf of unregistered religious organizations, yet voiced concern that the liability for such activities was not completely abolished. Many believe that the simplicity of the procedures can lead to an increased frequency of administrative sanctions to compare with relatively few criminal proceedings.

However, the year 2019 dispelled this fear, as religious organizations felt pressure in other traditional areas: first, ungrounded denials of registration of new parishes and, second, denials of work permits for foreign clergy, which is prescribed by Belarusian law.

Problems with the registration of new parishes are even faced by the major denominations, the Belarusian Orthodox Church among them. Protestant communities, especially those whose growth the authorities are trying to artificially restrain, experience the greatest difficulties in this respect. This, among others, concerns the Christians of Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals). The number of their communities is deliberately not indicated in statistical reports,3 since it exceeds even the number of parishes of the Catholic Church, the second largest traditional denomination in the country.4 ‘Forum 18’ reports, for example, that in July 2019, the Frunzenski District Executive Committee of Minsk dismissed the application for registration of the Pentecostal Thy Will Be Done Church for the ninth time.5 The application for registration of Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Borisov, Minsk Region, was dismissed sixteen times in 20 years.

The denials of work permits for foreign clergy strongly hit the Catholic Church, since Belarusian Catholic priests are too few. Commissioner for Religious and Ethnic Affairs Leonid Gulyako once again turned down the request to allow Vitebsk priest Pawel Knurek to return to the parish, in which he had served for 15 years.6

The authorities give up now and then under pressure of believers. The administration of Soligorsk, Minsk Region, first forbade and later allowed Father Sobieslaw Tomal to return to work after previous 20 years of service.7 The permit was extended for six months.

On the whole, the Belarusian authorities show their significantly declined interest in religious affairs, possibly, due to the situation with the tomos of autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.8 Many expected that Constantinople’s claim for control over the territory of the former Kiev Metropolitanate, which included the lands of present-day Belarus, would stir up the interest of the Belarusian leadership, or even result in gaining independence by the Belarusian Orthodox Church.

It is no secret that former President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko pursued his own political and re-election agenda when striving for the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, but his hopes were shuttered anyway. Apparently, the fall of P. Poroshenko in Ukraine, which is more religious than Belarus, turned the Belarusian leadership rather skeptical about the possible political gains it could make with the Church’s support.

There is an interesting observation that should be taken into consideration. In previous years, Commissioner for Religious and Ethnic Affairs Leonid Gulyako and senior city officials of the line departments attended, without fail, all annual meetings of the Minsk Diocese of the BOC, but only one low rank officer of the Commissioner’s Office was present at the most recent meeting on December 12, 2019.9

The central authorities display even greater and undisguised alienation in relation to the Catholic Church. There has been some surge in interest towards the Catholic Church over the past decade of the international isolation of the Belarusian political establishment. The government was entertaining the idea of the Pope’s visit to Belarus and a concordat, the highest Church-state agreement at the international level. However, judging by what Metropolitan Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz told reporters at the Christmas meeting, there is little hope of progress in both areas. The authorities evade such topics, or even bluntly state that “there is no political will for that now.”10

Things are going from bad to worse at the level of local Catholic communities. The state does not provide any assistance in the revival of sacraments of national cultural and historical significance, and even makes attempts to impose extra taxes on parishes or confiscate buildings once granted to churches, such as the Mogilev Cathedral.

The tension between the state and the Church peaked when crosses were dismantled in Kurapaty. Metropolitan Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz released a statement, calling on the authorities to solve problems not through blasphemous violence, but in a constructive dialogue with society and religious organizations.11 The BOC leadership kept silent, but some renowned priests, including in the Church administration, seconded the protests against the government’s actions, which they considered blasphemous.

Interchurch relations

No changes happened in relations between denominations. Apart from the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity,12 no cooperation was observed at the official level, although there were some displays of spontaneous solidarity. The inputs were unequal even during the Week. Two events stood out in 2019: the above-mentioned protests against the demolition of crosses in Kurapaty and the collection of signatures against LGBT propaganda.13 In the Catholic Church, both were initiated by the Episcopate, while the Orthodox Church came out with purely individual initiatives. Speaking about the collection of signatures, Spokesman for the BOC Archpriest Sergiy Lepin expressly said that the collection of signatures was a private initiative of the St. Elisabeth Monastery, rather than the official position of the leadership of the Belarusian Orthodox Church.14

The debates regarding the personality of Wincenty Konstanty (Kastus) Kalinowski are a good illustration of the alienation between the Churches (Kalinowski was reburied in November 2019 in Vilnius together with the remains of other participants in the 1863-1864 uprising). The dispute between Archpriest Sergiy Lepin and historian Vasily Gerasimchik15 became high-profile evidence of religious and cultural differentiation of society, rather than a political affiliation factor, since both sides strongly advocate independence of Belarus. Celebration of some iconic historical figures, such as Kalinowski, could unite the Belarusian nation, but the alienation between the Churches can be an insurmountable obstacle to this.

Autocephaly outlook

The granting of the tomos of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church encouraged many believers in Belarus. However, the later events in Ukraine showed that the transition of the Episcopate, clergy and laity from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine of the Moscow Patriarchate to the autocephalous Church was not as avalanche-like as expected. Unlike Ukrainians, Belarusians show less autocephalous sentiment in the Church environment and the movement alternative to the official Church, which promotes the autocephaly, is hardly seen in Belarus.16

Nevertheless, in 2019, supporters of the autocephaly of the Belarusian Orthodox Church managed to organize the conference (unprecedentedly large for Belarus) titled “Belarusian Intelligentsia in Support of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.” It was held in Chernihiv, Ukraine, for organizational and political reasons. Attending the event were clergy and laity of the unregistered Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and many opposition politicians. They discussed the possibility of obtaining the autocephaly and released a statement, demanding registration of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.17


The Belarusian Orthodox Church’s autocephaly and resolution of other issues in the church-state relationship will largely depend on state policies and public sentiment. It may turn either to the cession of sovereignty and absorption by Russia or upholding of sovereignty and independent development of the country and the Churches.