The religious sphere in Belarus: Stability and controllability

Natalia Vasilevich


The situation in the religious sphere in 2017 is easier to describe perhaps in terms of what did not happen than what did. Although the 500th anniversary of the publication of the Francysk Skaryna Bible had a certain symbolic potential for churches and the church community, the tone in the anniversary events was set by the academic community and the public. The situation in the religious sphere is ‘frozen’, there is almost no dynamics, the state and religious organizations maintain a stable balance. The authorities continue the policy of controlling the religious sphere through current bureaucratic mechanisms that complicate spontaneous and active events of religious organizations. In the Orthodox Church gradually the balance of the elites is settled. The Catholic Church continues to try to build a balance in relations with the state, for any occasion actualizing the topic of the concordat.


Legislation and institutions: ‘in order to support the stability of the interconfessional situation’

For the state authorities of Belarus the main positive characteristics of any subsystem of public life are stability and controllability. It is for the sake of their security that the complex legislative and bureaucratic regulations and officialdom work.1 The controlling and sanctioning role of the officialdom is primary in relation to the legislative norms, because officials, if needed, can apply the rules, ignore them or act contrary to them in order to ‘maintain stability’.

Answering the questions of the priests of the Archdiocese of Minsk concerning violations of art. 13 of the Law On freedom of conscience and religious organizations in some cases which requires that the head of a religious organization be exclusively a citizen of Belarus, Plenipotentiary for religious affairs Leonid Gulyako said that although there is such a rule ‘when some decisions are to be made, we are not very strict to follow it. We have people both from Russia and from Ukraine, and they are the heads of the parishes in the Orthodox Church. If to strictly adhere today to these standards 31 persons of the Catholic Church must leave the country immediately’.2

It is significant, first, that the Plenipotentiary speaks about the norm rather formally, as of something ‘recorded’, i.e. as something that exists only on paper, despite the fact that art. 7 of the Constitution explicitly requires that ‘the State and all its bodies and officials act within the Constitution and the acts of legislation adopted in accordance with it’. Second, the statements of the Plenipotentiary reveal that he has a poor situation awareness and does not know that according to the Charter of the Roman Catholic parishes in Belarus the Executive organ of the parish is ‘Church Committee’ (section 3.5), which is headed by the Chairman (sec. 3.8), and the archpriest for the position can be selected only if he is a citizen of the Republic of Belarus (sec. 3.8.1). It is due to these controversial norms of the Roman Catholic Church that it had to change the parish charter having created for itself additional problems, including mismatches between secular statutes and the norms of the Canon Law and the ways of organizing of the inner structure.

On the one hand, the Plenipotentiary acknowledges that the mentioned norm of art. 13 in some cases is not conducive to religious stability. It is worth mentioning that the head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslaul Paul (Ponomarev) is a citizen of the Russian Federation, and it means that he holds the position of the BOC head in violation of the law. On the other hand, the state authorities deliberately choose the strategy of exceptions that are beyond the Law, which puts religious organizations in a greater dependence on the decisions of state authorities.

The Orthodox Church: its own way

In the internal life of the Orthodox Church the process of reformatting the ‘elites’ is almost completed, and at the moment it is possible to mention the following centers: the leadership of the BOC, which consists of the Metropolitan Paul and the team formed by him and dependent on him, which consists mainly of young and previously unknown priests. The second center is a favorite of President Lukashenko from among the priests, Minsk Archpriest Fyodor Pouny, the fame and political resources of whose are guaranteed by his personal weekly broadcast on Belarusian TV, by the special status of his parish of All Saints, as well as by his personal relationships with government officials and people who hold high positions in the government. Between these two centers there is a tacit opposition, which, however, is practically not manifested in the public space. In addition, the third largest center is St. Elisabeth Convent – a major religious, economic and social structure, to which several thousand employees and activists belong and which currently has a monopoly in some areas – both in ecclesiastical business and in the publishing and cultural activities, it has large resources and a strong identity.

On the one hand, within the BOC the use of the Belarusian language expands, regular services in Belarusian occur at least in four Minsk Orthodox churches, in two churches of Minsk region, in four Hrodna churches. Commemorating the 500 anniversary of Skaryna Bible the first official Orthodox translation of the New Testament into Belarusian was published.3 The official page of the BOC on the Internet now has the full Belarusian version.4 On the other hand, the process of canonization of the Metropolitan of Lithuania and Vilnius Joseph (Semashko) is activated, around whom Pro-Russian forces of the BOC unite.

All sorts of grassroots initiatives that are connected mostly with civil society rather than with the leadership of the BOC expand. Among these initiatives are the festival ‘Borderland’, which in 2017 was held for the second time thanks to the activities of the volunteer group; the consolidation of the Belarusian independent theologians around the theological section of the International Congress of Belarusian Researchers and the launch of the cooperation network of Belarusian theologians in the Diaspora.

The Roman Catholic Church, the Belarusian state and society: the concordat is on the agenda

In May 2017 Metropolitan Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz gave the keynote presentation on ‘the Interaction of Church and state in our time’, at the Academy of management under the President of the Republic of Belarus,5 where he presented his view on the development of relations between the church and the state in Belarus. In particular, the head of the Catholic Church in Belarus mentioned a fundamental inequality between the world Catholic Church and the one of the national states, because the Church carries out a ‘global program’, while the state ‘adopts specific programs to solve specific problems’ (sec. 4).

On the one hand, he noted that the mission of the Church is the creation of equitable social structures, on the other hand, this vocation is indirect, it provides for the mutual autonomy of the Church and the state, securing the latter of the ‘rights necessary for its activities’, including the defense of religious liberty by ‘just laws and other appropriate means’ and the right of the Church to ‘a moral evaluation of its [the state's] activities in the field of human rights and the salvation of souls’ (sec. 5), ‘free to bear the spirit of the gospel in society, to proclaim and to defend moral values and to develop the social doctrine for a secular state to benefit from the laws of Christian values’ (sec. 7).

The best way to regulate relations between the state and the Church according to Metropolitan, is the system of the concordat, ‘a legally registered’ agreement between the Vatican and the government that defines ‘internationally ... the mutual rights and obligations of the sides’. The concordat, the talks about which have been conducted since the memorable visit of the Secretary of State of the Vatican, Cardinal Bertone to Belarus almost a decade ago, and which becomes more and more topical during visits of the head of the Belarusian state and the high-ranking Belarusian officials to the Vatican, which, however, does not facilitate the actual signing of the document.6 The Conference of Catholic bishops of Belarus made a statement in May about the need for ‘a legal settlement of relations between the Catholic Church in Belarus and the government for a more effective cooperation for the spiritual benefit of the Belarusian people’.7

It is obvious that the Belarusian state has sabotaged for a long time the conclusion of the concordat, however, Metropolitan Kondrusiewicz still hopes that once the signing will take place, and the government will agree to conclude a concordat to ‘raise the image of Belarus on the international arena’, recognizing that ‘not all the problems associated with preparation of such an agreement are solved’ (sec. 7). Though in fact it was Belarusian legislation that contains repressive restrictions on the freedom of religion, to which the Vatican paid attention within the procedure of the Universal periodic review for Belarus, stating the need to ‘take measures to prevent restrictions on freedom of religion and belief and to ensure greater compliance with the right to freedom of expression and freedom of associations’,8 the head of the Church tried to offer a compromise. Recognizing that the legislation does not provide ‘the full right to religious freedom’, because ‘many of the provisions are outdated and do not correspond to our time and the real situation’ (sec. 9), he noted many positive provisions of the current Law and proposed to solve problems not through changes of the law, which would concern all religious organizations, but through ‘Church-state agreements’ (sec. 8), which concern some specific religious organizations ad hoc. This corresponds to the state strategy is described in the section ‘Laws and institutions’.

The Metropolitan mentioned the following issues that concern the Roman Catholic Church: 1) the issue of foreign priests: first, the need for priests, who briefly visited Belarus as tourists, additionally to obtain prior permission from the relevant state bodies to conduct holy services; second, the problem of non-agreement or agreement only for a short time of permits for religious activities of foreign clergy; 2) the transfer of previously confiscated Church buildings to parishes testifies to the need for legislation on restitution; 3) creation of a state program on restoration of historic buildings; 4) the question of sanctions for long-term constructions of churches; 5) the question of foreign donations: complicated procedures of their receiving, registration and use, the lack of tax benefits for sponsors; 6) interaction with the departments of ideology: the requirement to submit a program of teaching Catechism at Sunday schools and lists of children; 7) religious education in schools on an optional basis for the Roman Catholic Church; 8) permit and support of pastoral activities in medical institutions; 9) permit of the pastoral activities in places of detention and in the army; 10) ignorance of experts for religious affairs of the fundamentals of doctrine and canonical laws of religious organizations, whose activities they control; 11) the problem of prison tracks, the tension from their presence in the mass events and festivities, including during the pilgrimage to Budslau (sec. 9).

Such statements by Metropolitan Tadeusz Kondrusievicz are, on the one hand, an attempt to build the borders of their religious organization in relations with the modern regime. However, on the other hand, there is a distancing from parties, which are based on Christian values, in particular from the unregistered party of Belarusian Christian Democracy, for which, basing on its positioning in the political and ideological field, it is strategically important to have, if not support, then at least close contacts with the churches. Metropolitan Tadeusz, though encourages the laity to ‘engage in politics with the purpose of Christian witness and the support of moral values in government’, he nevertheless expresses a ‘negative attitude’ of the Catholic Church towards the ‘the idea of founding a Catholic party’, as such an idea is out of date, ‘from the last century’ (sec. 6).

It should be noted that at critical moments Metropolitan Kondrusiewicz, without going into open confrontation with the authorities has the courage to make public statements about certain public events charged politically. In February, the head of the Catholic Church made an appeal ‘in connection with the situation in Kurapaty’9 where he called ‘representatives of the Minsk authorities, the Ministry of Culture, developers, local residents and volunteers with the participation of representatives of different confessions and lawyers to search for solutions acceptable for all in this problem emerging and exciting in our society through an open and sincere dialogue and not through emotions’. And in March, he expressed concern about the arrests of public and political activists before and during the events dedicated to Freedom Day, expressing hope for ‘just and humane treatment of detainees’ and urging ‘the government and its opponents, as well as public organizations and people of different views to engage in a constructive dialogue’. On the one hand, the fact that the Metropolitan touches upon topics current for the ‘opposition’ updating them could be construed as a support of their agenda. However, the key word in Kondrusievicz’s statements is ‘dialogue’ as something alternative to the protest. However, since in the conditions of the Belarusian political system the civil society has no mechanisms to initiate any dialogue with the authorities, such a dialogue, whose precedents has never happened in the history of the strengthening of the regime of President Lukashenko, either depends only on the good will to the dialogue on the part of the authorities, or on strong pressure on the authorities.


The government will continue to try to maintain the situation as it is. In the BOC the confrontation between Metropolitan Paul and archpriest Fyodor Pouny will increase, the Orthodox seek to obtain accreditation of the Church theological schools from the state. The Catholic Church will continue to promote the possibility of a concordat, at least in some form.