Influential or influenced: the Belarusian Orthodox Church

Kalozha Church in Hrodna - the oldest Orthodox Church in Belarus. Source: culture-belarus.jimdo.com

While many Belarusians call themselves religious, less than 10% regularly visit church and only 33% believe that religion is important, according to a Gallup study of religiosity.

Despite the fact that Belarus is among the top-15 least religious countries in the world the Orthodox Church remains influential in the public sphere.

The Orthodox Church maintains a special status in Belarus and takes advantage of this to promote pro-Russian and military values. The regime and the Orthodox Church both benefit from cooperating with each other. At the same time, due to its complex structure and Russian links, Lukashenka has been unable to bring the Belarusian Orthodox Church completely under his control.

What is the Belarusian Orthodox Church?

Today, the Belarusian Orthodox Church forms part of the Russian Orthodox Church. This is reflected in its name: the Belarusian Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate. The head of the Orthodox Church in Belarus is Metropolitan Pavel, a Russian citizen, who has served in Belarus since 2013. Despite a certain measure of autonomy, the Belarusian Orthodox Church complies directly with the policies of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Belarusian government often comments on the ‘importance of the Orthodox Church’ in daily life. In 2016, Michail Miasnikovič, chairman of the Council of the Republic, stated: ‘Belarus is a secular state, but when it comes to civil society, the church occupies an important place in our society and it is wonderful that all confessions have a constructive position, especially our main Church - the Orthodox’.

Although it has a long history, the Belarusian Orthodox Church’s independence is still in question. In December 2014 the head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church stated that he will attempt to increase the independence of the church from Russia. Nevertheless, a month later, he said that the idea of an independent Belarusian Orthodox Church is far removed from reality and that independence could harm the church.

Russian language remains dominant in the church's daily life. The head of the Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Pavel, originates from Russia and has served as Metropolitan in Belarus since 2013. He largely ignores the issue of Belarusian language. Most church services are held in Russian with a few notable exceptions, where priests occasionally use Belarusian, such as the Sukharava church. The unregistered Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church uses Belarusian on a daily basis.

A Special Status and Friendship with the Regime

The Belarusian government favours the Orthodox Church not only only on a symbolic, but also on a legislative level. For example, in 2004 Belarusian authorities and the Orthodox Church signed an agreement of cooperation which gave the Church the right to influence education, healthcare, and crime prevention. Later in 2015 the Church and the Ministry of Education signed a document on school trips to holy places. So far, there are no similar agreements between the Belarusian government and Catholics or Protestants.

The Orthodox Church is also is also singled out in the law on ‘Freedom of consciousness and religious organisations’. According to the law, only Belarusian citizens have a right to head religious organisations. However, the head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Pavel, has retained his Russian citizenship.

Not only is the Orthodox Church highly visible in the public sphere, it often serves as a channel of support for the state. In 2004, Metropolitan Pavel publicly supported Lukashenka’s referendum on extending presidential term limits. The Orthodox Church is also the only religious organisation which is seen to be meeting the president at various events. In a typical display of combining religion and politics, the highest representatives of the Orthodox Church prayed for Lukashenka two days before the presidential election of 2015.

Metropolitan Pavel made use of this occasion to state: ‘Well-regarded Alexander Ryhoravich, We are on the eve of an important choice. On behalf of all Belarusian Orthodox Christians, let me express my support for your policies’.

Pro-Russian and Military Oriented

In addition to participating in politically-oriented occasions, the Belarusian Orthodox Church also organises its own suspicious events. In 2015, the church organised a large Orthodox festival based on the ‘Stalin Line’. The venue and the agenda had an ideological, pro-Russian, and military character. Russian flags and military attributes became an important part of an ostensibly Orthodox festival.

Moreover, since the annexation of Crimea, the Orthodox Church has been organising military-patriotic clubs. In 2016 Nasha Niva revealed at least five such orthodox-military-patriotic clubs in Hrodna region alone (the most Catholic area in Belarus). The daily activities of these clubs include religious classes, patriotic lessons, and martial arts. On their web-pages, two such clubs invited Belarusians ‘to protect Russians in the former territory of Ukraine’.

Russian symbols have become an important part of patriotic clubs and Orthodox events. One Vitsebsk club organised a trip to Russia for youngsters which included training with former military officer Aleksei Milchiakov, who fought in Donbass. At Orthodox festivals and the annual Orthodox ball, Russian flags and people in military clothes are commonplace.

In 2015, the oppositional organisation Malady Front drew up a list of 100 pro-Russian organisations in Belarus. Among them are many pro-Russian Orthodox military clubs with names like ‘Holy Rus’, ‘Russian world’, ‘Russian national unity’. The Russian Public Movement for the Spiritual Development of the People for the State and Spiritual Revival of Holy Rus also promotes clearly pro-Russian ideas. Since 2014, the increasing activity of these organisations and clubs has become more visible and dangerous for Belarusian sovereignty.

Balancing between Russia and Belarus

The Orthodox Church, which enjoys wide civilian support, has turned into a propaganda tool for the regime. As Lukashenka once said: ‘we have chosen the Orthodox Church as the main ideologist for statehood...The state has a right to rely on representatives of the church’. By letting the church into the public and political spheres, the state gives power to the Church but takes advantage of it at the same time.

The Belarusian Orthodox Church seems to balance between Belarus and Russia. On one hand, it serves the main goals of the 'Russian World' by hosting and popularising pro-Russian groups in Belarus. On the other hand, the Orthodox Church tries to support the actions of the Lukashenka regime in public statements. Recently, Metropolitan Pavel criticised two extremist pro-Russian authors who insulted Belarusian language, nationality and statehood.

The Belarusian government is also balancing between sovereignty and Russia. The regime does not want to risk demanding the independence of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. Several of Lukashenka's statements point to the presence of political will to free the Belarusian Orthodox Church from its Russian counterpart. This would provide Belarus with more loyal propaganda and a more reliable ideological partner. At the same time, the government has no desire to worsen relations with Moscow, which is currently in charge of the Belarusian Orthodox Church.

Alesia Rudnik is an analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre and MA student at Stockholm University.

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