Nicholas Denysenko serves as Emil and Elfriede Jochum Professor and Chair at Valparaiso University. Denysenko is a graduate of the University of Minnesota (B.S. in Business, 1994), St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (M.Div., 2000), and The Catholic University of America (Ph.D., 2008). His most recent books are The People’s Faith: The Liturgy of the Faithful in Orthodoxy (2018) and The Orthodox Church in Ukraine: A Century of Separation (2018).
The protests in Belarus taking place in the aftermath of the presidential election have taken a dark turn with reports of brutality and torture used by riot police. Religious leaders are playing an important role in responding to the civil unrest. While some faith leaders are demonstrating their public solidarity with the protestors, there is immense pressure on the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC, an exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate) to advocate for the protection of fundamental human rights in the midst of a series of political injustices.
It is tempting to draw a parallel between the role of the Orthodox Church in the Belarus crisis and the Ukrainian Maidan (Revolution of Dignity) originating in 2013, but there are significant differences. Orthodox Ukrainians initiated a movement for an autocephalous (independent) church, completely free from Russian control, as early as 1917. The autocephalous movement returned to Ukraine at the end of the Soviet period and played an important role in expressing public support for Ukrainian sovereignty. Clergy and laity of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and autocephalist churches demonstrated their solidarity with the protestors at the height of the Maidan. Russia’s response to the Maidan—the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas—hastened the creation of the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) that has the support of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and recognition from two of the world’s Orthodox churches.
The BOC has not followed the path of church independence pursued by Ukrainians. It is helpful to compare the responses of the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) to political movements in Belarus and Ukraine to illuminate the differences and similarities between the two situations.
In 1990, the MP elevated the canonical (legal) statute of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine from an exarchate to a church with broad autonomy in its self-governance. The MP initiated this change to stop the migration of clergy and parishes from the MP to the resurgent autocephalous movement that had returned in 1989, and also to give the appearance of non-interference from Moscow.
The BOC continues to be an exarchate of the MP. On August 25, the BOC’s leader, Metropolitan Paul, tendered his resignation. The MP elected and appointed Bishop Veniamin, a native of Belarus, as the new head of the BOC. This appointment is strategic, similar to the MP’s actions taken in 1966. At that time, the MP appointed Filaret (Denysenko), a native of Ukraine, as the new metropolitan of Kyiv. Filaret’s appointment occurred as the MP attempted to assert control over former Greek Catholics in West Ukraine, who were forced to become Orthodox during the Council of L’viv in 1946 orchestrated by Stalin and his henchmen. The MP appointed Filaret to grant the appearance that Ukrainians were governing their own church. The MP’s appointment of Bishop Veniamin lends the appearance of Russian non-interference in BOC affairs, as it did with the appointment of Filaret in 1966 and the granting of autonomy to his church.
These moves represent the MP’s attempt to keep the large Belarusian and Ukrainian contingents within the official fold of the church. Church spokespeople rationalize such moves as preserving the multinational character of the church and holding nationalism and xenophobia at bay. It is clear, however, that politics are also involved, to retain Belarus and Ukraine as Russian outposts in Eastern Europe. It is no secret that Russia uses its branches in the Orthodox churches in Belarus and Ukraine as fifth columns to maintain the unity of the so-called Russkii Mir (Russian world).
Two options are available to both the MP and the newly elected Bishop Veniamin. They can sustain the status quo by issuing statements that call for peace and promote nonviolence without explicit criticism of Lukashenko. There is a strong chance that state force will restore order, and minimal disruption to the life of the church will be the immediate reward.
The second choice is more risky. Church leaders can demonstrate their solidarity with the protestors by defending their human rights and implicating Lukashenko. While the apparatuses of state and church would certainly penalize them for this course, they could gain the trust of the people.
The MP’s “Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights” calls for defending human rights when there is “concern for a just and economic and social order of society.” The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s recent social ethics teaching, For the Life of the World, states that the Orthodox Church can “lend its voice to the call to protect and advance human rights everywhere,” including violations of people’s civil rights and justice. A decision to defend the civil rights of protestors would therefore be anchored in the teaching tradition of the Orthodox Church.
The uncertain future outcome of standing with the people is a likely source of fear for the church. The MP miscalculated Ukrainian resistance to Russian domination and lost the loyalty of at least half of Ukraine’s Orthodox believers in the process. A second miscalculation in Belarus seems unlikely, especially in the absence of a strong movement for church independence.
The great risk to church leaders responsible for Belarus, however, is to misunderstand the significance of trust by the people. The protestors have already demonstrated their resilience in the face of brutal state force. A movement for an autocephalous BOC seems impossible, but the Ukrainian case shows that there are now multiple models of autocephaly in the Orthodox world. If national statehood and independence symbolized Orthodox autocephaly in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the OCU shows that liberation from an aggressive foreign tyrant is a legitimate reason for autocephaly in the twenty-first century.
The strategy of sustaining the status quo at all costs, including defending human rights, might be successful for Belarusian Orthodox Church and state officials in the short term. Losing the trust of the public could cost them dearly in the long run. Bishop Veniamin instructed the people to pray and fast for divine assistance in his inaugural appeal. It is likely that church leaders will need to go beyond spiritual appeals and take stronger action to help resolve this crisis.