Religious sphere: Prayer for Belarus, prayer for Lukashenko?

Natallia Vasilevich


In 2015, the government continued to pursue its policy of sustainable control of the religious sphere, mainly through the legal and bureaucratic regime. Cases of pressure in the form of repressions were rare; they concerned small unregistered communities and had no wide response. The beginning on the year witnessed a deterioration of relations with the Roman Catholic Church, caused by public officials’ sharp attacks on the leadership of the religious community. The Orthodox Church expands its pro-Russian and militaristic ideas, primarily associated with Church youth policy — the military-patriotic clubs and the festival At ‘Stalin Line’; active personnel reformatting goes on. A religious-hued show named ‘Prayer for Belarus’ became the main mobilization event of an inert presidential election campaign.


General characteristics

Quantitative surveying of believers and those who belong to a particular faith, according to sociologist S. Karasiova, does not reflect a real picture of the impact that a correspondent confession has on life and values of individuals and society as a whole, because the polls do not actually correlate between the world view of respondents and their religious identification.1 However, today there are no alternatives to such studies.

The most regular is an annual surveying of the Informational and Analytical Center at the Presidential Administration, which allows tracing the historical dynamics of indicators. In 2015, according to the study, 63.5% of the Belarusian population defined themselves as believers; 83.0% — as supporters of the Orthodox religion, 9.5% — as Catholics.2 The peak indicator of the number of believers from 2010 to 2015 was fixed in 2012 and totaled 71.5%, the rate for 2015 is the lowest in the period. The number of Orthodox believers in the same period ranged between 78.0% and 84.0%, the number of Catholics ranged between 7.0% and 12.0%. State sociologists note the main tendency both among Orthodox and Catholic believers to an out-of-church and socially passive, private-family form of exercise of religion, e. g. celebration of the religious holidays.3

Confessional structure of the Belarusian society in the aspect of religious organizations is 26 denominations with a total number of 3 315 religious communities, among which 1 643 (49.6%) are Orthodox, 491 (14.8%) are Catholic and 1 057 (31.9%) are various kinds of Protestant communities.4 Out of them in Minsk,5 where about 20.0% of the population lives, 151 communities are registered, which constitutes only 4.5% of all religious communities. Out of the total number of communities in the capital, 45 (30.0%) belong to the Orthodox Church, 21 (15%) belong to the Roman Catholic Church, and 56 (37%) – to Protestant Churches; in the framework of the respective denominations the Orthodox parishes in the capital constitute 2.7%, Roman Catholic – 4.2%, and Protestant – 5.2%.

Thus, the religious field is characterized by the predominance of Orthodoxy, and this dominance has not only a quantitative but also institutional character which is fixed in the Law On freedom of conscience through the status of ‘the first’ religious denomination and the existence of appropriate agreements with the government of the Republic of Belarus and individual governmental ministries, agencies and organizations. Such cooperation with the state opens some doors to the public sphere for the Orthodox Church, however, this also characterizes the orientation of the Church on the state and state organizations in the public activities.

On the other hand, it defines the logic of a junior rather than equal partner, because the state apparatus using its resources, infrastructure and status in this partnership plays the main role, the role of an ‘ordering customer’ of certain services, the role of an agency that admits the Church in state public institutions, and the role of a controller of activities within these institutions. As a result, the dominant position of the Orthodox Church in the public sphere turns into the background, without its real influence on public life and policies (because the Church lacks the mechanisms of this influence), but with a permanent decorative presence on the ‘back burner’.

Prayer for Belarus: The Church in the electoral process

The culminating manifestation of the ‘decorative’ role of the church in 2015 was the ceremony Prayer for Belarus,6 the main public mass event of Alexander Lukashenko’s election campaign, organized on October 2 by the public authorities which took place near the temple-monument in honor of All Saints, built with state support, the archpriest F. Pouny of which is close to president Lukashenko. The main participants on the side of the denominations were the leaders of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Republican religious Association of Muslims, the Jewish religious community.

The Protestant Church such as the minor Evangelical Lutheran Church mentioned in the preamble of the Law On freedom of conscience, and more mass, but ‘non-traditional’ Baptist, Pentecostal and Evangelical Churches were not present at the ceremony at the public level. The mobilization of masses for participation in the event, which had a symbolic character, was arranged through the usual departmental method of ‘quota’.

The symbolism of this ceremony for Church-state relations lies in the fact that for the public authorities religious organizations are interesting due to their potential support, which is manifested through the leadership of these organizations, mainly formal, without an appeal to the mobilization potential of a wide circle of believers.

Belarusian Orthodox Church: Between the ‘Russian world’ and Belarusianness

If in 2014, Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) was restructured at the level of episcopates/dioceses (four new bishops were appointed, the number of dioceses increased by one third, and they became smaller) in 2015, Metropolitan Pavel started to reform the Minsk diocese. It became more compact, which increased the intensity of control.

Despite the fact that the BOC, unlike the Russian OC as a whole, did not adopt a new standard parish Charter of 2009, which virtually eliminated any sprouts of parish autonomy, securing the power of diocesan Bishop as the main manager of the parish, it is this system of administration that began to be implanted within the Central Belarusian Eparchy de facto.7 Under Metropolitan Filaret, the rectors of Minsk large parishes while maintaining loyalty acted with sufficient autonomy both in economic aspect and in the development of other activities of their parishes, allotting conventional ‘royalties’ to the diocese on the principle of the franchise. Metropolitan Pavel undertook an audit of economic activities of the parishes and put them under his tighter control.

If previously economic activity was the personal business of the parish leadership, especially of priors, and both their personal welfare and that of the parish depended on this activity, now in the economic sense, the parish is obliged to bring some income to the diocese. The ‘efficiency’ of the prior depends on his ability to ‘feed’ the diocese and guarantee its financial transparency. Although this approach of the leadership of the diocese is appropriate, as it allows accumulating funds for the development of all-Church and all-dioceses projects at the expense of the parishes, it gives parishes an additional financial burden and becomes a source of discontent.

The same trend has affected large associations of BOC — the International public organization ‘Christian educational center of saints Methodius and Cyril’ and the Publishing house of the Belarusian Exarchate. The founders and longtime leaders of these organizations R. Daugiala and R.U. Hrozau after the financial audit, which revealed the schemes of getting and disbursement of funds, opaque for diocesan leadership, were dismissed from their posts, which were given to young priests without experience of business and organizational activity within the previous schemes that were tied to the ex-leaders to a large extent.

Reliance on young and less experienced people is done for the sake of reducing the influence of outstanding figures in the new diocesan Council, which was approved in December 2015: the average age of the members of the governing body of the diocese appointed by Metropolitan Pavel is 39.5 years old (the average time in office is 15.5 years), and if to exclude priest G. Latushka, the most mature both in age, and in the experience, the number will be even smaller: 34.5 years old (10 years in office). The same applies to the court of the Minsk diocese, where the average age is 39.4 years old. Beside archpriest G. Latushka, M. Korizhych and A. Lemiashonak there are no influential abbots of the major temples of Minsk in the Council, who previously constituted the backbone of the diocesan administration.

In fact, the reform of the diocesan administrative system was directed against the autonomous communities of an average level. As an administrative support system of the new system are the young priests who do not have personal achievements, whose career progress is not linked to personal social and religious capital, which reduces the factor of personal initiative and autonomy. Any reformatting that changes the balance of power can potentially create conflics, it generates a wave of discontent, which in the conditions of tight control and deprivation of leverage finds limited implementation. First, this is a strategy of utilizing the resource of the public authorities (this option requires direct personal access to power); second, it is the creation of a coalition, which allows to accumulate resources together; third, it is an appeal to a higher level of Church management—the Moscow Patriarchate.

The next visit of Patriarch Kirill to Belarus in June was considered as the audit in relation to the activities of Metropolitan Pavel. Despite the fact that Minsk Metropolitan remains among those who are close to the Patriarch, his statement about the need for a greater autonomy of the BOC at the end of 2014, which showed a tendency to spontaneous and unpredictable actions, reduced to a certain extent the credibility of him as a figure completely loyal to Moscow and controllable. In turn, disavowal of this statement undermined a short-term credibility made to him by the clergy of Minsk Metropolitanate in connection with the movement towards greater autonomy for the Belarusian Orthodox Church.

To increase control over processes in the Belarusian Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate after the visit of the Patriarch to Belarus, a new administrative unit of control was created — the representation of the Patriarch of Moscow in the Belarusian Exarchate, headed by abbot Vasijan (Zmejeu).

In addition, in BOC at the level of activities with young people militaristic, pro-Russian, pro-Soviet tendencies are growing. It concerns functioning of a number of military-Patriotic clubs throughout Belarus, where patriotism has a clear Eastern vector (Slavic, pro-Russian, pro-Soviet), the ideological and military training is carried out among troubled and violent youth. Although this activity is targeting and touches on a certain social segment, its public visibility is increasing.

This trend becomes more vivid in a number of most Orthodox events: 2015 was marked by the Orthodox youth festival At ‘Stalin Line’ — in a place that has a clear ideological implication and is associated with the romanticizing of war. During the event many young participants were dressed in military uniforms, the entertainment included many items with military and Russian-patriotic elements. Even in such a neutral mass event, like a ball of Orthodox youth, people related to military service or service in bodies of internal affairs, cadets took part. However, at the level of parish life pro-Russian sentiments and ideas of the ‘Russian world’ are of a more latent, unorganized character.

Against this background, the expanding use of the Belarusian language during services in Minsk stands out: they are held monthly at the parish in Suhareva district of Minsk and at the Theological Academy, for some time on the initiative of Metropolitan Pavel the choir sang the hymn Mahutny Bozha (‘Mighty God’) in the Cathedral. If to consider this process in dynamics, it is possible to say that at the modest scale it is a real breakthrough in Belarusization of the BOC.

Roman Catholic Church: Escalation phase

In the Roman Catholic Church the trend of expanding the influence of Belarusian and pro-Belarusian episcopate continued: on June 3, as a result of elections at the meeting of the Conference of Catholic bishops of Belarus Metropolitan Tadeusz Kandrusiewicz was elected the Chairman, he replaced the longstanding Director and governing body of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus, Bishop Aleksandr Kashkevich, and on June 9 Alexander Jasheuski, who is a Belarusian, was appointed a new Catholic Bishop.

In relations with the Belarusian government the conflict associated with the fact that the authorities are dissatisfied with the activities of polish priests in Belarus escalated: first, the Commissioner for religion and nationalities sharply criticized the personnel policy of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus in general and foreign priests themselves, accusing them of being politicized and even of ‘drunk driving’, later the President joined the criticism. The Catholics responded with a protest from the public (people collected signatures against the authorized Huliaka), and from the Conference of bishops (who made statements of an extraordinary plenary meeting).8

At the level of diplomatic relations with the Vatican the contacts had an average intensity, but for the first time the Vatican openly announced its participation — together with the countries of the European Union and the United States — in diplomatic pressure on the Belarusian authorities on the issue of release of political prisoners.9 Nuncio Claudio Gugerotti played a key role in the mediation between the Belarusian authorities and the Vatican in the political cooling after December 19, 2010. In 2015, his mission in Belarus was completed, and the appointment of a new Ambassador of Vatican to Belarus was delayed. This may reflect both a decrease in the intensity of contacts between the Vatican and Minsk, and a strategic and tactical reformulation of the policy towards Belarus from the Holy See.


In the new context of thaw between the West and Belarusian authorities the necessity to mobilize religious organizations as players in the diplomatic process as intermediaries will lose its sharpness. The policy of weak, but constant tension will continue, because it showed its effectiveness in maintaining control over the religious sphere: the authorities create points of tension and then ‘settle’ the problems.

BOC will continue to form new ‘weak’ elites from among the appointees of Metropolitan Pavel, at the same time the personnel policy will be aimed at the maximum weakening of the ‘strong’ elites that have developed in the previous period. The policy of the authorities regarding BOC will largely depend on its position in Moscow-Minsk relations.