Influential or influenced: the Belarusian Orthodox Church
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.
Arrests infographics, Washington conference, MediaBarCamp, feminist protest – Belarus civil society digest
The toll of activists detained as a result of street protests against decree #3 reaches nearly 200 people, sentenced to 982 days of arrests and $7,600 of fines. TUT.BY visualises statistics of the "protest spring." The two-week defence of Kurapaty protected area seems to have ended in the victory of activists: construction works halted.
Sakavickija Sustrečy bring together 220 CSOs and community leaders from 40 Belarusian locations. On International Women’s Day, Belarusian feminists protest against sexism in advertising.
FreeMarket celebrates its 3-year anniversary. Conference on urban mobility is announced in Minsk. Organisers of Accessibility Week 2017 are looking for partners.
This and more in the new edition of Belarus civil society digest.
Social parasites’ and Kurapaty protests
Total number of protesters detained when street protests against the decree#3 started has reached almost 200 persons. This figure includes over 20 journalists detained while covering the events. Thus, on 16 March, at least 52 persons stood trials following violent detentions of participants of the protests against the decree #3 known as the "law against social parasites". TUT.BY provides infographics of the "protest spring" in Belarus – chronology and punishments.
Viasna, Belarusian Association of Journalists, National Platform, Belarusian Helsinki Committee call on the authorities to stop the persecution of citizens for exercising their right to peaceful protest. In their appeals to Belarus' authorities and international organisations, the Belarusian CSOs express rejection of the repressive actions related to the detentions and punishments of participants in peaceful protest actions connected with the decree #3.
Kurapaty defenders’ triumph: no construction near Stalin-era mass grave site. The two-week defence of Kurapaty protected area, a mass executions site, seems to have ended in the victory. The investor company promised to halt works to construct a business center there. Meanwhile, one of Kurapaty defenders Siarhiej Paĺčeŭski was detained and sentenced to 3 days in jail. Zmicier Daškievič, the leader of the protests was detained, when he live-streamed on Facebook.
Conference on Sustainable Urban Mobility to be held in Minsk. On 24 March, over 20 speakers from Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Sweden will gather to exchange experiences and discuss plans and optimal opportunities for sustainable development of the regions of Belarus. The conference program is available. The organiser is Interaktsya fund.
The first Belarus Washington Conference to take place on 4 April. The event is devoted to 25-year anniversary of US-Belarus official diplomatic ties. Organised jointly by the Belarusian Institute of America and the German Marshall Fund in partnership with Political Sphere Institute the conference will provide a forum to discuss opportunities, prospects and possible directions in US-Belarus relations.
MediaBarCamp 2017. This year the @MediaBarCamp will be implemented for the 10th time and take place on 11-14 May. This is a space where activists from different spheres gather to share their experience implementing projects or initiatives. The topic of this year is INSPIRED BELARUS/INSPIRED BY you, or the activism is an inspiring stuff. Deadline for applications is 22 March.
Social and local activism
FreeMarket celebrates its 3-year anniversary with a large event in Minsk. On 18 March, the event space 210 METROV hosts the FreeMarket Minsk, where everyone can exchange things for free and see the mutual aid system in action. The event will take place in any case, despite the fact that two of its organisers were sentenced to 13 and 14 days in jail after the Non-parasites Protest March.
The City selected 20 participants from over 200 applications submitted. The City project suggests an intensive education for local activists and helps in the implementation of their ideas in communities. The whole process is recorded as a series of video episodes with the following broadcasting in the Internet and TV. The grand prize is a study trip to Brazil.
Accessibility Week 2017. The 5th Accessibility Week will be held on 15-21 May. This is a series of events devoted to various types of accessibility, traditionally organised by the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This year, the Week considers accessibility in the focus of freedom from discrimination. The culmination of the Week will become a festival in Liepeĺ town.
CSO Sakavickija Sustrečy/March Meetings brought together 220 participants from 40 Belarusian locations. On 4-5 March, in Minsk, activists participated in presentations, discussions, master classes, Human Library, Fuck-Up Night to share their experience in working in local communities. The civil society forum is planned as an annual event. On 13 March, the organisers will discuss the forum’s results with journalists at the Press Club.
Belarusian feminists protested sexism. On International Women’s Day, in a shopping centre in Minsk, several girls held posters ‘No to sexist advertising!’ and ‘Down with sexism and objectivation in ads!’ They were protesting against a company producing underwear that uses in its ads the images of men and women as sex objects.
Belarus in Focus 2016 announces the winners. This year the international competition for journalists writing about Belarus in international media took place for the sixth time. This is organised by Belarus in Focus Information Office in partnership with Press Club Belarus and the International Visegrad Fund. The articles are evaluated by an international jury consisting of top media professionals.
Long-expected concert: blacklisted Michalok's Brutto performs in Minsk. After a long wait, on 8 March, Brutto unveiled their new program in Minsk with 12,5K tickets sold out. Until the first concert in Homieĺ last year, Brutto band wasn’t allowed to play in Belarus – its front-man Siarhiej Michalok was banned in Belarus for his critical stance towards the Belarusian authorities.
CSOs will translate legislation. Belarusian Language Society and Dzieja/Action initiative launch a campaign to translate legislation into the Belarusian language. The organisers also intend to make the Belarusian versions official. Translation will be conducted through the online platform, which allows engaging a large number of people simultaneously.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.