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Belarusian Christians oppose war in Ukraine despite pressure from authorities

On 3 March, riot police detained mothers of Belarusian soldiers who had gathered at the Holy Spirit Cathedral in Minsk to pray for peace. On 25 March, Belarusian Greek Catholic priest Vasil Jahorau from Bialynichy was fined €440 ($487)...

On 3 March, riot police detained mothers of Belarusian soldiers who had gathered at the Holy Spirit Cathedral in Minsk to pray for peace.

On 25 March, Belarusian Greek Catholic priest Vasil Jahorau from Bialynichy was fined €440 ($487) for a having placed a sticker on his car reading “Ukraine, forgive us.” Earlier, Catholic priest Andrzej Bulczak, who served in Pastavy, chose to flee Belarus. Bulczak had been charged with criminal extremism for an anti-war video he posted on YouTube.

Belarusians have an increasingly limited space to articulate their political positions. State repressions and paranoia are extending into church services. In such circumstances, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has become a delicate subject for all Belarusian religious communities.

Christian Vision’s activism

Some 80 per cent of Belarusians declare a belief in God. Most believers, 73 per cent, belong to the Orthodox Church. Of the minority faiths, 12 per cent are Catholics, while another 12 per cent practise other religions, and the remaining 3 per cent claim no religious affiliation.

According to Natallia Vasilevich, Belarusian church researcher and theologist, the experience of the 2020 peaceful protests in Belarus—and their suppression in 2021—is impacting the reactions of major Belarusian churches to Russia’s war against Ukraine.

In 2020, churches and religious communities gained visibility and popularity as they spoke out against violence and police brutality. But the Belarusian state’s crackdown on political opposition included undermining the civic solidarity promoted by religious communities. Church leaders had to reduce their public visibility and carefully watch what they said throughout 2021. Protestant communities lacking state registration (which is virtually impossible to secure) even faced the threat of prosecution under the amended Criminal Code.

On 9 September 2020, representatives of Belarusian religious communities founded Christian Vision, a working group within the Coordination Council for the settlement of the political crisis in Belarus. Uniting pro-democracy Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical activists, the group represents an informal association of believers. The aim of the group is to monitor religious and political persecution in Belarus.

Most Christian Vision members are now based outside Belarus. Many activists have had to flee the country for fear of persecution. Christian Vision was one of the first politically active groups in Belarus on 24 February to issue a condemnation of “the aggression of the Putin regime against Ukraine” and of the use of Belarusian territory “as one of the springboards for this aggression.”

Following the Pope’s lead

Ukrainian Ambassador Ihor Kyzym attending a prayer for peace in Ukraine at the Church of Saints Simon and Helena (Red Church) in Minsk, 20 March 2022. Source: Ukrainian embassy’s Facebook page.

On 25 March, Belarusian Catholics joined Pope Francis in an Act of Consecration of humanity—in particular of Russia and Ukraine—to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The pontiff launched an appeal to all Catholics around the world to unite in prayer to demonstrate a “gesture of the universal Church” to end to the violence and suffering of innocent people.

The position of Pope Francis, along with the expectations of ordinary Catholic believers, encouraged Belarusian Catholic bishops to elaborate their own stance to the war. Initially, on 26 February, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Belarus (CCBB) issued a brief message regarding the “conflict in Ukraine.” The CCBB asked believers to fast and to pray for peace. In response, Catholic activist and Christian Vision member Arciom Tkachuk criticised the CCBB’s statement for its vagueness. Other believers wrote an open letter to the CCBB.

The open letter asked Belarusian bishops not to keep silent about the tragedy in Ukraine. They urged episcopal representatives to give a clear moral assessment of Russian aggression and the Belarusian role in it. Subsequently, the CCBB issued a new statement on 3 March, referring to the conflict as “Russia’s war” and urging for efforts to prevent Belarusian involvement in it.

Orthodox ambiguities

The Holy Spirit Orthodox Cathedral in Minsk surrounded by police vehicles. Source: Christian Vision’s Telegram channel.

On 25 February, Metropolitan Veniamin of Minsk and Zaslaŭl’, who is the Orthodox Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus, addressed the faithful with a call for reconciliation and for an immediate cessation of hostilities. Metropolitan Veniamin said, “We all feel that we are one family with Russians and Ukrainians… [and we share] the pain of our brothers and sisters.” To date this remains the only war-related statement from the Belarusian Orthodox Church. Belarusian historian Tacciana Proc’ka interpreted Veniamin’s silence as an attempt to avoid responsibility.

Orthodox authorities did not react to an incident on 3 March where several women were arrested after praying for peace at the Holy Spirit Cathedral, located in central Minsk. Only the priest who held the service tried to convince security officers to leave his parishioners alone.

At the very start of the war, Patriarch of Moscow Kirill addressed Orthodox believers. Patriarch Kirill said he perceived the “human suffering caused by unfolding events” with “deep, heartfelt pain.” Later, Kirill was more specific. In a sermon on 6 March, he focused his attention on Ukraine’s separatist Donbas regions, ignoring the rest of Ukraine. Kirill praised the separatist regions for their rejection Western values and went on to condemn pride parades.

Aliaksandr Shramko, an Orthodox priest and a Christian Vision member, commented on Patriarch Kirill’s loyalty to Russian authorities in an interview with Zerkalo.io, a news media website. Shramko noted that a patriarch in the Orthodox tradition cannot be equated with the position of a spiritual leader. According to Shramko, his statements cannot reflect everything that is going on within the Orthodox church.

On 24 March, Christian Vision’s Telegram channel announced that some Belarusian Orthodox priests were refusing to commemorate Patriarch Kirill. This can be understood as a form of spiritual protest against Kirill’s support of the Putin regime. Apparently, they are following the example of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has stopped honouring the Moscow Patriarch in its services.

Church authorities have reacted by pressuring priests who halt their commemoration of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Despite this pressure, Christian Vision has noted the spontaneity of these protests. Priests reportedly have been deciding to protest either on their own, or with the support of their parishioners, guided by moral principles.

The domestic political situation in Belarus remains decisive in shaping the reactions of major Belarusian churches on the issue of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While Catholics have the moral support of Pope Francis, Orthodox priests face more limitations. Still, even in these conditions, they seem to move away from Orthodox Patriarch Kirill’s statements. Cautious appeals for prayer in Belarus stand in contrast to the persecution of the anti-war, Christian activists, who were the first to condemn the Russian war in Ukraine and the Lukashenka regime’s role in it.

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Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach holds a PhD in History from the University of Alberta, Canada.
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