The Catholic Church and Belarusian Authorities: a Masterpiece of Political Levelling
On 2 February 2016, Commissioner for Religious and Ethnic Affairs of Belarus Lieanid Huliaka criticised the Catholic Church for “insufficiently active cadre training” and “the destructive activities of some Belarusian priests among the population”.
Two days later the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Belarus in an official statement defined these issues as “exclusively the internal affairs of the Church”. The Bishops suggested that all such questions “may be discussed in person”. Such a public exchange of opinions did not whip up Belarusian public interest.
In recent years the Commissioner has become a mouthpiece for the authorities’ pretences toward Catholics. He raised identical objections to “cadre training” and activities among the population in 2014 and 2015.
Nevertheless, Huliaka's public criticism does not threaten to embitter Church-State cooperation. After utterances in January 2015, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin made an official visit to Minsk, Saint John Paul 2 Catholic Academy of Theology was registered and President Alexander Lukashenka honoured Fr. Česlaŭ Kurečka with a President’s award for spiritual revival.
The political forays of the state officer have taken the form of proving the Church’s political loyalty. The Conference humbly rejects allegations, redirects dialogue to the sidelines and never criticises the Belarusian authorities.
Catholic status quo in Belarusian politics
Around 80 per cent and 10 per cent of the population define themselves as Orthodox and Catholic respectively. The authorities recognise these confessions as the most legitimate and important.
In 2009 Gallup research found Belarus to be one of the least religious countries in the world. According to these findings, religion plays an important role in the daily life of 27 per cent of Belarusians. International studies show that only 6 per cent of Belarusians attend church regularly. Catholics appear to be the more active believers: while 50 per cent of them attend Sunday mass, only 18 per cent of Orthodox adherents do so.
Belarusian diplomacy sees good relations with the Vatican as a means of establishing an outpost in the Western direction. Officials and state media speak only in a positive way about the Church.
Fr. Aliaksandr Amialčenia, Director of the Vatican Radio’s Belarusian Service, said that “in order to create a positive image of the country it is advantageous to adhere to a positive image of the Church”.
The authorities have invited Archbishop Tadevuš Kandrusievič to the most important state events. Recently the hierarch attended the Prayer for Belarus ceremony and sat in the first row during the fifth presidential inauguration of Lukashenka. Kandrusievič's presence at the official rituals of the Belarusian regime demonstrates the Church’s loyalty.
Fr. Uladzislaŭ Lazar's detainment on charges of state treason seems to be the most explicit example of Church-Powers relations. On 30 May 2013 the KGB arrested the Catholic priest. Lukashenka revealed this in July, and it was later confirmed by the Conference press secretary. Archbishop Kandrusievič limited himself to a call to pray for Fr. Lazar.
Despite numerous social efforts to oppose the priest's detainment, Catholic officials remained silent. On 3 December the authorities released Fr. Uladzislaŭ and the case has not gone to the court. Neither party has disclosed any circumstances around the arrest. Catholic hierarchs remain patient, even in the most extreme dealings with the authorities.
Interests involved: what is at stake?
After decades of atheism under the Soviet Union, freedom of religion has been slow to return to Belarus. The communists destroyed many churches and the majority of temples were used as warehouses or industrial plants. A shortage of priests, lack of administrative structures and temples in need of rebuilding remain the key problems today. Solutions to all these issues depend on the Belarusian authorities.
Since 1989 Polish priests have been playing a significant role in the Church's revival. According to the Commissioner Office, they currently account for over 25 per cent of the total number of priests in Belarus. In criticizing “insufficiently active cadre training”, Huliaka was referring to the need to replace foreign priests with local ones. Reducing the number of Polish priests has been among his priorities for many years. According to Huliaka, “some Polish priests try to cultivate politics” and “they do not like our country, our law, the authorities”.
The Conference of Bishops claims that in 2009-2015 the number of Polish priests declined from 168 to 113. A considerable number of them, despite protests by the parishioners, have not received the necessary permits to work in Belarus.
Information about the majority of these cases bypasses the media, but fragmentary leaks show that in 2009 four Polish priests were refused visas, in 2012 – three, and in 2014 – two. A sudden decrease in the number of priests could greatly hinder the Church’s functioning.
New parishes wait years for a temple construction permit and Lukashenka personally signs each one. The Catholic hierarchy, however, never expresses its concern about the issue publicly. The protest of parishioners in Hrodna in December 2006 has been the only deviation from this policy of silence.
Fr. Aliaksandr Šemiet, after waiting ten years for a temple construction permit, organised a hunger strike. Five days later the authorities issued it. Aliaksandr Kaškievič, Bishop of Hrodna, was informed about a forthcoming protest, but huge support from parishioners and the priest's desperation meant that he could not forbid it.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill meeting: a new chance for Belarusian diplomacy?
Some analysts treat the historical reunion of two Christian leaders in Cuba as a personal failure of Lukashenka. The Belarusian president has been an ardent supporter of such meeting in Minsk. Archbishop Kandrusievič enthusiastically stated that “the likelihood of the Pope visiting Belarus is greater than ever”. In the current struggle to normalise relations with the West, closer relations with Catholics create new opportunities for Belarusian foreign policy.
It is possible that Archbishop Tadevush Kandrusievič will receive some extra bonus such as a Catholic shortwave radio broadcasting licence, for example. Any legal guarantees, however, seem unthinkable. In 2008, during a meeting with Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, Lukashenka expressed readiness to sign a concordat with the Vatican.
Since then, Minsk has frozen the bargaining process. Leszek Szerepko, former ambassador of Poland in Minsk, in an article published in Tygodnik Powszechny wrote that “the existing system which guarantees to the state a rich instrument of control and influence over religious communities” fully suits the Belarusian leader.
The Catholic Church has rich experience of functioning in authoritarian regimes. Amidst endless public provocations, Archbishop Kandrusievič has avoided participation in the authorities’ game. In 2007 deputy Prime Minister Aliaksandr Kosiniec announced that “in four years there will be no foreign priests in Belarus”. Nevertheless, Polish priests continue to serve in the Belarusian state. Perhaps Catholic diplomacy in the corridors looks unattractive, but it remains effective.
Artsiom is a MA student at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan (Poland)
Eastern Belarus: What To See And Do
The capital city Minsk generally marks the limit of ambition for many first-time visitors to Belarus. Last month, however, we took a glimpse at some of the delights awaiting discovery in Western Belarus beyond the boundaries of the M9, the Minsk orbital motorway.
This article, the second of a two-parter, introduces the visitor to the Eastern half of the country. Here stand the cities of Homieĺ (Gomel) and Viciebsk (Vitebsk), famed for the richness of its arts and culture heritage.
Elsewhere lie the historic settlements of Polack (Polotsk, the oldest town in Belarus and one of the oldest in all of Eastern Europe) and Turaŭ (Turov, spiritual heart of the Paliessie), as well as the small town of Vetka with its superb Folk Arts Museum.
Cities: the arts, parks, rivers and vistas
With a population close on 500,000, Homieĺ can justly claim to be the second city of Belarus. 300 kilometres from Minsk and close to the borders with Russia and Ukraine down in the south-eastern corner of the country, its location high above the western bank of the Sož river gave the city significant importance during the Great Patriotic War. Today, all is hustle and bustle as befits its status.
Yet oases of calm do exist, chief among them being the lovely Rumiancaŭ-Paškievič Park, behind the statue of Lenin at the top of Savieckaja Street. Whatever the season, the opportunity to promenade here should not be missed.
The sumptuous 18th century palace designed by Count Rumyantsev stands in 25 hectares of beautiful parkland, from which extensive elevated views east over the river afford a fine panorama. Within the park also look to find the early 19th century Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and nearby the Rumiancaŭ mausoleum, an excellent photo opportunity.
270 kilometres north-east of Minsk on the banks of the Western Dzvina river stands the elegant city of Viciebsk, birthplace and long the home of artist Marc Chagall. The excellent museum devoted to his works holds a lofty position on the river’s eastern bank, just across a pretty square from the 18th century Russian Governor’s Palace.
A few moments’ walk south brings the visitor to the magnificent Uspenski Cathedral of the Assumption, one of the city’s highlights. The view from the balustrade takes in the whole of the lower city, including the site of old Jewish Viciebsk.
Little of the original architecture survived the horrors of the Nazi occupation, though one notable building that remains is the House of Marc Chagall, now a lovely museum telling the story of the artist’s life. Just a few hundred metres along Pakroŭskaja Street from here stands the Chagall monument in the old market square.
The popular and much-loved Slavianski (Slavic) Bazaar, an international song and culture festival that takes place annually in the open air in late July and early August, beautifully articulates the city’s relationship with the arts. For one glorious week in high summer, the city morphs into a gigantic street party, with 5,000 artists performing at the purpose-built domed amphitheatre on Frunze Street, as well as (seemingly) on every street corner.
‘The city of all Belarusian cities’: walking in the footsteps of history
No visit to Vitebsk should pass without an excursion to Polack, the oldest and one of the most attractive towns in the entire country. Only 105 kilometres to the north-west and birthplace of famed poet and teacher Simeon of Polack, as well as the great humanist and translator of the Bible Francysk Skaryna, a single walking tour presents the visitor with an opportunity to explore the town’s riches on foot. One such tour is described in the third edition of my Bradt Travel guide to Belarus
However you do it, be sure not to miss the stunning Cathedral of St Sophia, first built in the 11th century, the magnificent Convent of St Euphrosyne, with its cathedral and two churches, and finally the statuary and monuments to be found the length of Francysk Skaryna Avenue. Bring your walking shoes and luxuriate in a slow meander through this beautiful town.
Icons, manuscripts and rušniki
At first sight, the small town of Vetka appears unremarkable. Founded in 1685 by “Old Believers’ (the religious group disenfranchised and persecuted by Catherine the Great and others for failure to accept significant reforms within the Russian Orthodox Church), it stands on the eastern bank of the Sož river, just 22 kilometres north-east of Homieĺ .
But this sleepy provincial town is home to the splendid Folk Arts Museum, where exhibits of the highest quality recount the story of the unique culture and history of the region. Ancient artefacts, icons, manuscripts, traditional costumes and woven ‘rušniki’ (embroidered towels with deep ritualistic and ceremonial significance) fill each room.
Old Believers crafted many of the icons in the 17th century, while the rushkini come from the villages of the region. At the school in the nearby village of Niehliubka, pupils still learn to weave on wooden looms made to the exact design of those dating from the 1600s. The headteacher is always glad to welcome visitors.
‘The land of fogs and bogs’
The area to the south of the M10 motorway linking the cities of Homieĺ and Brest (the mysterious, mystical and fabled Paliessie) holds considerable appeal to lovers of nature and the great outdoors. Known colloquially as ‘the land of fogs and bogs’, the fragile balance of the eco-system of the marshy lowlands here has been difficult to maintain over the centuries, but work now undertaken at Prypiacki National Park helps to maintain its unique biological diversity.
Do visit Turaŭ, the main town and spiritual heart of the Paliessie. First mentioned in chronicles in 980, some historians place its importance in Old Russia second only to Kiev. The fine nature museum here explains all the visitor needs to know about the history and ecology of the Paliessie.
Visitors from outside the country will always find that the attractions of the capital city Minsk are many and varied. But as with Western Belarus, those with an instinct for discovery who venture East beyond the boundary of the Minsk orbital road will uncover many treasures. Be bold and inquisitive. You will not be disappointed.
Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.