At a church service celebrating the Orthodox Christmas on January 7, Lukashenko told the nation, “My soul cannot comprehend the fact that in our country, the church is somehow separated from the state. The church plays a colossal role – it is a consolidating element in our society“.
A new law on religion, passed in November last year, certainly guarantees the Orthodox church a central role in Belarusian society. However, smaller sects and denominations in the country suspect that far from being a consolidating force, the increasingly powerful clergy will repress and persecute them for their beliefs.
In his New Year’s speech, Lukashenko stressed that there is no religious conflict in Belarus. But his assurance is unlikely to convince the parishioners of Semkov Gorodok in western Belarus who follow the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox People’s Church, BAOPC.
The church, which considers itself independent of Russian Orthodoxy and was denied the right to register in Belarus, is forced to hold its services in the open air and in private homes to escape fines or arrest by the police.
The autocephalous sect is not alone in feeling threatened. The law on religion passed in November 2002 attracted scorn from a number of denominations that felt they would be marginalised, if not criminalised, by the primacy accorded to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Human rights organisations added to the chorus of criticism. Tatiana Protko, chairperson of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, warns that the new law will “inevitably lead to the instigation of religious hostility and intolerance”.
November’s legislation demands that all religious organisations be compulsorily re-registered every two years. All unregistered religious activity is deemed illegal. Moreover, all faith groups with fewer than twenty members have been outlawed, as have most forms of religious observance in private homes.
A preamble to the new law has proven particularly controversial. While emphasising the pre-eminence of the Russian Orthodox Church, it recognises four other mainstream faiths in Belarus – Catholicism, Lutherism, Judaism and Islam.
Smaller denominations left out complain that the state will only defend the interests of the officially sanctioned faiths.
The state prosecutor, Stanislav Novikov, played down the role of the preamble, maintaining that it carried “no legal force” and was “just a foreword to the law“. He added that the five mainstream faiths were listed because of their long history in Belarus.
President Lukashenko enthused about the new law in his January 7 address, saying it provided “a legal basis” for “closer cooperation between the church and state“.
“The law notes that Orthodoxy is an integral part of the historic, cultural and state traditions of our country,” he said.
The Orthodox church arrived in Belarus over a thousand years ago via Russia, and its Belarusian wing follows the leadership of the patriarch in Moscow. Although religion was consigned to a minor role while Belarus was part of the Soviet Union, and many Belarusians still consider themselves atheist, Orthodoxy has become the dominant faith in the country in the years after independence.
Of all the leaders of post-Soviet republics, President Lukashenko, who has run Belarus since 1994, has been the keenest to maintain tight political and cultural ties with Moscow. As the most influential of the country’s few allies, Russia is responsible for propping up the Belarusian economy – and Lukashenko’s presidency – with cheap gas and electricity.
Observers believe Lukashenko may be drawing together the Belarusian Orthodox church and the state in order to have his country’s strongest cultural link with Russia enshrined in domestic policy.
Although it is a branch of Orthodox Christianity, the autocephalous church does not recognise the authority of the patriarch in Moscow. It is perhaps inevitable that it should find itself on a collision course with authorities that are trying to foster Russian Orthodoxy in Belarus.
The state’s hostility to the autocephalous church reached a climax last summer in the village of Pogranichnyi, near the Polish border. One of its priests, Jan Spasiuk, decided to build a church on land that was designated for his house. On the eve of the church’s inauguration, armed police surrounded the village and bulldozers moved in to demolish the illegal construction. Since then, church-goers have congregated in secret.
The autocephalous church emphasises nationalist elements in worship and holds its services in the Belarusian language rather than in Russian. This is more than a challenge to the authority of Russian Orthodoxy; the church’s nationalist focus is subtly at odds with Lukashenko’s campaign to present Russians and Belarusians as brothers-in-arms.
Levon Akalovich, an archpriest in the autocephalous church, told IWPR, “Today in the churches, people pray for the Russian, not for the Belarusian state. Belarusians have their own traditions, their own statehood and we want an appropriate church to defend these.”
Despite repeated attempts, the autocephalous church has not been able to register with the state, which regards its charter as unconstitutional and illegal. Akalovich maintains that his church is “in no way opposed to the constitution“.
The church draws most of its followers and funding from diaspora communities in the US and Canada, although it claims to have its origins in 19th century Belarus.
The church’s western connections have led the authorities to allege that it is an alien faith. Vladimir Lamenko, deputy chairperson of the State Committee for Religions and Nationalities, maintained, “The truly patriotic forces have always lived here, with the people. That is why the state supports the Belarusian exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.”
Father Nikolai, a secretary of the Belarusian exarchate, goes one step further, suggesting that the autocephalous church is an agent of western powers, seeking to drive a schism through Russian Orthodoxy. He cites former US cold-war policy adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who apparently named the Orthodox church as the West’s principal enemy in the early 1990s.
“Today the aim is to divide the church. Orthodoxy unites people, it does not divide them,” said Father Nikolai.
Lamenko admits the state favours certain faiths because of their history in Belarus, but does not discriminate against others. He sums this up in sublimely Orwellian fashion, “Here all denominations are equal, but this does not mean they are equivalent.”
Natalia Mukha is a journalism student at the Belarusian State University in Minsk.
This article was originally published by the IWPR (Institute for War Peace Reporting), London, in the first issue of its Belarus Reporting Service (BRS, 17 January 2003). The Institute for War & Peace Reporting strengthens local journalism in areas of conflict. Religioscope has been allowed by the IWPR to repost its articles.
© 2003 Institute for War & Peace Reporting