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) 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
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.
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.
Denazification of Ukraine – What can we learn from Belarus?
In late March, Ukrainian officials reported arson attacks on national archives located in the cities of Chernihiv and Kharkiv. It appears the Russian army has been destroying Ukrainian works of literature and confiscating historical documents in occupied territories.
One of Russia’s most publicised but least understood plans for Ukraine is denazification. State policy in Belarus can provide insights into what the Russian leadership may intend for Ukraine. The gradual replacement of the Belarusian language with Russian at schools and universities, the forced Russification of culture, and political repression have become unavoidable features of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka’s policies. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems ready to pay any price, including death and human suffering, to create the illusion of a “Russian world.”
What is denazification for Putin?
Historically, denazification refers to a set of measures adopted in Germany after WWII. It targeted all spheres of life, with a focus on expunging Nazi ideology from education, culture, politics, media, and private life. Demanding the denazification of Ukraine, Putin clearly equates the current government in Ukraine to Nazis.
In the current situation, what Russian authorities likely mean by denazification is Russification. Russian and Soviet histories provide examples of Russification. Developed in the 19th century by Tsarist authorities to assist in subjugating the populations of conquered lands, the Soviets actively used the concept, too. For example, in 1867, Russian authorities forbade the printing and distribution of all Belarusian-language periodicals and banned the use of Belarusian in all official discourse. In the Soviet era, attempts to trace the history of the Soviet republics from a period before 1917 were deemed nationalistic and required “decisive destruction.”
Belarusian national revival in the 1990s
In January 1990, just before the breakdown of the USSR, the Law on Languages in the Belarusian Soviet Republic set the Belarusian language as the official state language. The law, favoured by some of the country’s political elite, included a set of measures to gradually increase the use of Belarusian over a period of 10 years. Belarusian was enshrined in the 1994 constitution as the official state language. Parliamentary sessions began to be held in Belarusian.
The early 1990s saw a national revival of Belarusian culture and language. Many Belarusian politicians spoke openly about the need to develop a Belarusian national identity and criticised the Soviet past. Belarusian-language periodicals, radio, and other media flourished. Between 1990 and 1995, the number of print-media editions in Belarusian became greater than the four previous centuries combined. This period of cultural development was underway as Alexander Lukashenka came to power in 1994.
Russian becomes the second official language
In 1995, less than a year after Lukashenka was elected the first Belarusian president, the national flag and coat of arms were changed to resemble slightly modified versions of their Soviet precursors. And as a result of a 1995 referendum (criticised by most independent observers), state authorities declared 88.3 per cent of Belarusians in support of Russian being made the second official language of Belarus. This later became fixed in the Belarusian Constitution.
The Belarusian language rapidly lost its prominent position in education, print media, and politics. Lukashenka sought both to limit the influence of the Belarusian-speaking opposition, and to demonstrate loyalty to Russia, his main international backer. In 1994–1995, more than 76 per cent of first-grade students began their education in Belarusian-speaking classrooms. By 2013, the total number of pupils studying in Belarusian has fallen to just 13 per cent.
In universities, the use of Belarusian has been gradually diminishing along with the dismissal of Belarusian-speaking teachers. For example, after the wave of post-election protests in 2010, the authorities dismissed or discriminated against the Belarusian-speaking teaching staff at Hrodna State University.
Under Lukashenka, Belarusian-language media has suffered repression, persecution, and shutdowns. In response, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) have attempted to preserve and promote Belarusian culture. Between 2015–2018, the regime relaxed its anti-Belarusian language policies. The authorities even allowed some Belarusian language initiatives. But the Lukashenka regime has never pursued a conscious policy of supporting the national language. Instead, it has occasionally permitted civil society to do so when deemed necessary.
Following the rigged 2020 presidential elections, the authorities liquidated nearly all NGOs that either actively used or promoted the Belarusian language, including the Belarusian Language Society, PEN Belarus, and other initiatives and media outlets. Many activists associated with these organisations have ended up behind bars or have been forced into exile.
As of 2021, less than 3 per cent of Belarusians use Belarusian as a language of communication, although 66 per cent consider it their mother tongue.
State symbols and rewriting history
Another example of the denazification-cum-Russification of Belarus is the banning of its historical symbols and the rewriting of its history. As soon as Belarus declared its independence from the USSR, some politicians actively promoted nationalist symbols, such as the Belarusian white-red-white flag and the “Pahonia” coat of arms. In 1995, these were officially replaced with versions almost identical to their Soviet incarnations. In response, the Belarusian opposition began to identify themselves with the nationalist historical symbols of Belarus, particularly during protests. In 2020, hundreds of thousands took to the streets with white-red-white flags. Today, the Belarusian regime detains Belarusians not only for displaying the white-red-white flag, but even for white-red colour combinations on their clothing.
Nationalist political and cultural elites in Belarus have faced repression throughout history. The Soviet authorities exiled or killed thousands of prominent nationalists. Between 29–30 October 1937, in what came to be known as the “night of executed poets,” Soviet authorities conducted a mass execution of more than 100 cultural figures, poets, and writers in Minsk.
Removing unwanted names from textbooks has become another strategy of the Lukashenka regime. For example, Kastus Kalinovsky has been gradually transformed from a nationalist hero of the Belarusian struggle against Tsarist Russia into a Polish collaborator. The works of Larisa Genyush, a prominent poet, and writer Vasil Bykau have disappeared from contemporary school textbooks. Nobel Laureate Sviatlana Aleksievich has faced a smear campaign, with Lukashenka himself declaring her a traitor and an enemy of the nation.
Has the “Denazification” of Ukraine already begun?
Belarus provides a clear illustration of how Russian, Soviet, and Belarusian authorities have carried out a campaign of Russification. It has involved the censorship of culture, the discrimination of the national language, and the substitution of historical narratives.
As the international community concentrates its attention on battlefields in Ukraine, Russia is using every chance to undermine Ukrainian culture and the Ukrainian language in the territories it occupies. It is changing education programmes, burning national archives, destroying books by Ukrainian authors, and limiting access to Ukrainian media—a Russification campaign under the banner of “denazification.”
Ultimately, Russia’s aim is to promote the idea that the Ukrainian nation and its language are artificial constructions, and that being under Russian control is the only destiny for Ukraine.