Religious Affairs: Pressure on Churches and persecution of believers
In 2021, like the entire nongovernmental sector, the Churches were in the crosshairs of the regime, which sought total control over all segments of civil society. This was primarily reflected in personnel changes in the leadership of the two leading confessions – the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Alongside the reshuffles made under the government’s pressure, the authorities interfered in religious affairs on an unprecedented scale, and imposed their ideological narratives, striving to fill ideology with pseudo-religious content and simulate the “unity of the Churches and the state.” Repressions against believers and religious organizations, which were involved in the 2020 protests, continued.
- Demonstration of various degrees of loyalty to the authorities by the leading denominations; the loss of independency of the official Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC); attempts to balance between formal loyalty and displays of some autonomy made by the Catholic Church;
- Ongoing consolidation and cooperation between Christians of different confessions at the lower tier of the clergy and laity against the backdrop of indecisiveness of the Church leadership;
- Government’s attempts to take the Churches under control and use them for the state’s purposes by suppressing the Church leadership, persecuting lay activists, and exploiting the religious discourse for propaganda purposes.
Sentiments in the Churches: an outward glance
The impact of the political crisis on religious communities’ sentiments is illustrated by the survey conducted by the Christian Vision group of the Coordination Council and the National Poll independent sociological project from December 20, 2020 to January 10, 2021, involving 4,408 respondents identified by their phone numbers in Viber.
According to the survey1, regardless of denomination, 89% choose the answer “Yes, they [the Church leaders] should actively participate in public life by advocating human rights and condemning violence”. Twenty percent of the respondents linked this participation with support for protesters.
Seventy-nine percent of Catholics believed that their leaders ideologically supported the demands put forward by the protesters, while only 48% of Protestants were convinced of this. At the same time, neither Catholics nor Protestants thought that most of their religous leaders were sympathetic to the incumbent authorities, while 30% of Orthodox believers thought that the Orthodox Church leaders ideologically supported the authorities.
Seventy-four percent of Orthodox believers described their attitude to the actions of their Church leaders in the current political situation as extremely negative. Only 20% saw both positive and negative examples. The majority was concerned not so much about support for the authorities, as about the passivity, silence and hypocrisy. About 30% of respondents were so disappointed that they were willing to switch to another denomination, although only 3% said that they actually did.
In April 2021, the Telegram channel of the Christian Vision group questioned the subscribers about how preachers of different denominations react to the political crisis in Belarus (342 respondents in total).2 An almost equal number of Orthodox respondents said that their parishes either did not touch upon political issues, or criticized the incumbent authorities, or supported the protest. The pro-government sermons were exactly half as many as those critical of the authorities.
The ratio is even more contrasting in other Churches. Catholics have 10 times more “critical” parishes than ‘neutral’ ones, and Protestants have more than twice as many. Only two Protestants said there were pro-government sermons, while Catholics reported none.
The Christian Vision concludes that Belarusian Churches and the clergy are part of society, and advocates of change among them are in the overwhelming majority.3 However, the positions of the denomination leaders differ considerably. Catholic bishops mostly sided with society and condemned the actions of the government. Even if a priest has pro-government views, he is likely to refrain from voicing them during sermons. The Orthodox leaders in the person of Metropolitan Veniamin (Tupeko), on the contrary, prefer showing loyalty to the government, and silence some politically active priests.
Changes in the Belarusian Orthodox Church
After the appointment of Metropolitan Veniamin as the new Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus with his explicitly servile policy toward the regime, the Grodno Eparchy headed by Archbishop Artemy (Kishchenko) was standing out for its pro-democratic spirit for quite a while. During the 2020 protests, Archbishop Artemy openly condemned the authorities and security agencies for violence against civilians.
A purge in the Grodno Diocese began in June 2021. Archbishop Artemy was hastily removed from his post and forced to retire in violation of the Church statutes, first by the Synod of Bishops of the Belarusian Orthodox Church and then by the Moscow Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. Bishop Antony (Doronin), who was transferred from Slutsk to replace him, removed the priests who were sympathetic towards Artemy from key positions, and took all possible measures to suppress all undesirable sentiments in the Diocese.
Changes in the Belarusian Catholic Church
Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, Metropolitan of Minsk and Mogilev, Chairman of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Belarus, formally retired in the early days 2021, having attained the age of 75. Following negotiations between Minsk and the Vatican, he returned to Belarus for a short while, after he had been denied entry to the country for four months.
His age was hardly the point, considering that an even an older bishop, Kazimierz Welikoselec, was appointed interim apostolic administrator of Minsk and Mogilev. Jozef Staniewski (previously auxiliary bishop of the Grodno Diocese) took the office of archbishop of the Minsk and Mogilev Archdiocese in September. Both priests demonstrate conspicuous loyalty to the regime to such a degree that both the interim administrator4 and the new archbishop5 find themselves victims of manipulation by state propagandists.
Government claims leadership in religious life
Striving for total control over all aspects of public life, the government, among other things, claims the role of a religious leader, primarily with the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, paying close attention to the former.
Speaker of the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament Natalia Kochanova and even Lukashenko himself hold meetings with the clergy, which look like strategy sessions for issuing directives to subordinates. The Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Education introduced the optional course ‘Fundamentals of Spiritual and Moral Culture and Patriotism’ in schools to be taught by Orthodox priests, which caused a strong public response. According to the current Statute on the Procedure, Conditions, Content and Forms of Cooperation Between Educational Establishments and Religious Organizations, such courses are only allowed after school hours as part of the character- and morale-building curricular, and only upon written applications from students.
The authorities are more cautious and restrained when it comes to the Catholic Church, but still there’s place for absurdity at times. For instance, a “festival of children-adults bonding” organized by the local police with a demonstration of weapons and other police equipment was held in the territory of St. Teresa Avila Church in Shchuchin.
Apparently, the Prayer for Belarus official event on the Independence Day, July 3, was expected as a culmination of the general religious mobilization. Commissioner for Religious and Ethnic Affairs and Nationalities Alexander Rumak ordered to hold a morning prayer and ensure attendance, but the effect was not achieved. The event went almost unnoticed by the Orthodox Church, and the response of the Catholics even caused a scandal. The Curia of the Minsk-Mogilev Eparchy recommended the parishes to include the God Almighty hymn (which is actually prohibited in the country) in the Prayer for Belarus. This spoiled Lukashenko’s mood, and he even voiced threats against the clergy.
Another attempt to fill the official ideology with pseudo-religious content and simulate the unity of the Churches and the state was the presence of the heads of the leading confessions and religious attributes at the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly. However, this did not go beyond the somber formalism, both on the part of the state and the Churches.
Migration crisis through a religious prism
The humanitarian crisis at the border that Belarus shares with Lithuania and Poland organized by the regime to pressurize the West also reflected the desire of the Belarusian authorities to regulate and control all possible activities in the country, including religious.
The Churches and charitable organizations could provide substantial assistance in alleviating the situation with refugees, as they do in Poland and Lithuania. There is the Catholic Charitable Society Caritas in Belarus, which has resources and infrastructure for that. The leadership of the Catholic Church stated their willingness to provide humanitarian aid through Caritas, but the government made every effort to hamper civic activism, and forbade the reception of funds from foreign sources.
The regime only allows humanitarian activities within the boundaries it determines. This was once again made obvious at the meeting with representatives of four confessions on the migration crisis chaired by Commissioner Rumak, who used the Churches to address “politicians of the European states”. Under the supervision and with permission of Rumak, Metropolitan Veniamin, head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church stated the readiness “to provide humanitarian aid through the parishes of the Orthodox Church.” Meanwhile, much smaller Orthodox churches in predominantly Catholic Poland and Lithuania acted more effectively and independently, dealing not only with humanitarian aid, but also with the protection of refugee rights.
Believers’ activism and repression
Repressions against believers, who demonstrated their civic and Christian attitudes by protesting against the regime’s immoral actions, continued throughout 2021. Those incarcerated, such as Orthodox Pavel Severinets, Catholics Irena Bernatskaya and Olga Zolotar, and Protestant Vladimir Matskevich, were subjected to additional restrictions. They were denied meetings with clergy or access to religious literature.
Homes of Orthodox and Catholic clergymen were searched across the country, and security services put many active priests under surveillance. Some of them had to leave Belarus. A number of priests had to delete their pages on social media or switched to “for friends only” access. Personnel purges were also conducted in educational institutions of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. The Minsk Theological Academy, which stood out among Russian Orthodox academies for its free spirit, was hit the hardest.
Evangelical Christians were also under pressure. The video series “Voice of the Church” and “Witnesses to Violence” were deleted, and other projects, such as Sergei Lukyanov’s “Pastor in the City”, were suspended. Some religious communities involved in the pro-democracy movement are denied official registration, while section 193-1, which criminalizes activities without registration, has been returned to the Criminal Code. Therefore, any publicly voiced position can draw attention of law enforcers, and put the very existence of the community in question.
The New Life Full Evangelical Church, which openly condemned violence in 2020, was forcibly evicted from its preaching house, but it continues to hold open-air worship services every Sunday near the vacant house despite threats from the authorities.
Interfaith prayer services are also regularly held in front of the Town Hall. But the most significant and visible role in the pro-democracy Christian movement is played by the Christian Vision group of the Coordination Council, which unites believers of different Christian denominations. Its potential has even grown as many Christian activists choose to emigrate.
The authorities’ attempts to make religion an instrument of its ideology have produced a rather limited result. The only thing the authorities can do in this respect is to bridle and pressurize the supreme bodies of confessions and religions, thus exploiting religious discourse for propaganda purposes. Attempts in these two directions will most likely continue.
In this situation, one should expect greater consolidation of the Christian community around informal grassroots initiatives. Also, the shiftlessness and servility of the Church leadership can result in greater spiritual renown of those who really follow Christian commitments, making their lives an example, first of all prisoners of the regime. In response, the authorities may increase persecution of believers, including for disobedience to higher Church authorities.