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Russia provokes religious conflict in Belarus?

On 20 March 2018, Metropolitan Pavel (also known as Georgy Ponomarev) – the Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslaŭje, and Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus – stated his wish to organize the visit of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to Minsk. He scheduled the...

Vladimir Putin and ROC Patriarch Kirill

On 20 March 2018, Metropolitan Pavel (also known as Georgy Ponomarev) – the Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslaŭje, and Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus – stated his wish to organize the visit of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to Minsk. He scheduled the visit to follow on the heels of Pope Francis’s visit to Vilnius.

Some see this as the latest in a series of efforts by Russia to provoke religious conflict in Belarus. Russia’s actions earlier this year can be seen in the same light.

Metropolitan Pavel’ harsh rhetoric

A resonant interview given by Metropolitan Pavel on 29 January 2018 attracted the attention of society and the media. Pavel asserted that the Orthodox and the Uniates have “different gods”: “The task of the Uniates is to say that we have one God. Sorry, we do not have one God, my friends. You have your own God because you believe in God in another way.”

He then likened the Uniates to “a sectarian organization”: “The Pagans also have an idol – a god. But for us, the Orthodox, this is a bauble. The Uniates are like that.” The Uniates, members of the Eastern church that are in union with the Roman Catholic Church, acknowledge the Roman pope as supreme in matters of faith but maintain their own liturgy, discipline and rite. The Russian Empire violently dissolved the Uniate church, which had been established in 1596 and became the most popular religion in Belarus, after it occupied the territories of Belarus. Then, in 1839, the Russian Orthodox Church incorporated the Uniates into its ranks by force, causing social unrest and uprisings. At the moment, around 10,000 Uniates live in Belarus.

Pavel, Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslaŭje, Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus

In Belarus, society knows Metropolitan Pavel for his harsh rhetoric. The Metropolitan has no Belarusian passport or roots, does not speak Belarusian and visited Belarus only twice in his life before his appointment. On 3 November 2017, he compared the idea of creating a national Belarusian Orthodox church (separate from the Moscow Patriarchate) with the temptation of the devil. More notoriously, Pavel stated that Russia “can open the Chernobyl plug” in response to “Western aggression”. This earned the Metropolitan the nickname “Plug” among even the deeply believing Orthodox and parishioners of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).


Overwhelming ambitions

Finally, on 20 March, Pavel announced the visit of Patriarch Kirill to Minsk, scheduled to follow shortly after the visit of Pope Francis to Vilnius:

The arrival is expected on 13 October 2018. While the plan is not approved, perhaps, on 15 October 2018 a meeting of the Holy Synod will happen

said Pavel, stressing that this will be the first-ever meeting of the Synod of Belarus. Many people saw this as an act of “revenge” on the part of ROC because many Belarusian Catholics will be in Vilnius to meet the Pope on 22-23 September.

According to sources in the Belarusian ROC, Pavel finds serving in Minsk stressful. He long served in Ryazan (Russia), an area without any Catholics or Protestants, and where he did not face the great influence of other religions and the need to be a diplomat. Consequently, Minsk has been hard on him. The Pope’s visit compounded his stress. Pavel fears that tens of thousands of Belarusians will go to Lithuania and, as he understands it, organising a similar event with the Patriarch became imperative. He hopes that a larger number of Belarusian believers will meet the Patriarch than will go to meet the Pope.

Other sources state that Pavel has big plans regarding Belarus, though a large part of the Belarusian clergy opposes these plans. Thus, Pavel also wants to strengthen his position with the visit of the Patriarch and to win his support in some personnel decisions. “Although holding the Russian Synod in Belarus is nonsense, we also have a Synod” – states the representative of Belarusian ROC.

“Cossacks” in action

The cross near Kolbavichy, Baranavichy district.

Direct actions by pro-Russian provocateurs accompany the actions of Metropolitan Pavel. On 31 January 2018, next to the wooden church near the village of Kolbavichy (Baranavichy district, Brest region), local activists noticed a cross with a tablet proclaiming a provocative anti-Uniate message. The text on the tablet was praising the forced incorporation of Belarusian Uniates into the Orthodox Church by the Russian Empire in 1839. This act of violence was described as “peaceful union.”


The most widespread version of the story claims that the so-called “Cossacks” installed the cross. The Cossacks, a pro-Russian military club of historical reenactors, proclaim themselves the bearers of Cossack traditions from the Russian Empire. However, no one specifically took responsibility for these illegal actions. A priest in the church who personally consecrated this cross when asked by the media said that he had not even a suspicion about the provocative character of the message on the cross.

After media drew attention to the event, the local authorities decided to remove the tablet from the cross but made no attempts to punish the perpetrators. The Baranavichy region boasts a relatively large Uniate community.

No unity among Orthodox clergy

Russia and its lobbyists in Belarus try to throw-in new challenges for the Belarusian authorities in order to test their reaction to unknown threats. At the moment the Belarusian authorities’ reaction shows the absence of will to act quickly and firmly against pro-Kremlin provocateurs.

The Belarusian media reacted harshly both to speeches by Metropolitan Pavel on the Uniates and to the provocative tablet on the cross in Kolbavichy; even pro-government journalists underlined the unacceptability of such behaviour by the ROC representatives. Pro-Kremlin sources started to promote the idea that the Belarusian government and independent media provoke a religious conflict in Belarus. The independent media’s sin? It draws attention to the illegal activities of ROC representatives.

The press-attaché of Belarusian Orthodox Church Sierhij Liepin at celebrating BPR 100th anniversary

At the same timethe Belarusian Orthodox Church cannot presently demonstrate a united position and agreement about the pronouncements of its Metropolitan. For example, the press-attaché of the Belarusian Orthodox Church took part in the celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic where he delivered an official speech in the Belarusian language. He stated the importance of the proclamation of Belarusian People’s Republic, spoke about the unity of Christians in the country and finished his speech by the words “Glory to Jesus Christ! Long live Belarus!”


This occurred a couple of days after Metropolitan Pavel stated that the Belarusian Orthodox Church will not hold any events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic and “generally opposes the attempts to politicise prayer.”

Russia attempts to foster religious conflict in Belarus but faces strong resistance from local society, famous for its religious tolerance throughout history.

Even the Belarusian Orthodox Church, accused of being staunchly pro-Kremlin, shows different positions and approaches to the same issues. Meanwhile, Russia’s use of religion to destabilise the situation in Belarus is likely to continue.

Dzmitry Mitskevich
Dzmitry Mitskevich
Dzmitry Mitskevich is an analyst at Belarus Security Blog and editor-in-chief of 'Varta' magazine.
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