Lucian Leustean is reader in politics and international relations at Aston University, Birmingham, United Kingdom, where he has been teaching since 2007. He is a senior fellow of the Orthodoxy and Human Rights Scholars Project at Fordham University. His recent publications include, as co-editor with Grace Davie, The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Europe (2021), and as editor, Forced Migration and Human Security in the Eastern Orthodox World (2019) and Eastern Christianity and Politics in the Twenty-First Century (2014).
Belarus is in turmoil. On August 10, 2020, the Central Election Committee declared that President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for the last 26 years, won the presidential elections with 80.10% of the vote. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition leader and a human rights activist, received 10.12% of the vote. Two days later, fearing imprisonment, Tsikhanouskaya left the country for Lithuania, condemning the electoral fraud and claiming that most likely the results would have shown that she won with 60 to 70% of the vote. Dissatisfaction with both the regime and the electoral process led to widespread public protests engulfing the country. Scenes of public violence, torture, beatings, indiscriminate arrests, and the jailing of leading opposition figures have regularly been reported. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus stated that only in the first four days of peaceful protests “at least 6,700 people have been detained.”
Belarus is a predominantly Orthodox country with the local church organized as an exarchate (a semi-autonomous structure) under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. On August 14, in response to public protests, Metropolitan Pavel (Ponomarev) of Minsk and Zaslavl, the head of the Orthodox Church, encouraged the clergy “to offer special prayers to the Lord during every Divine Liturgy to give peace and prosperity to the Belarusian people.” The prayers, held in the Old Church Slavonic and the Belarusian, had little effect. On August 23, over half of million people took part in demonstrations across the country; around 250,000 people gathered in Minsk, the largest protest since Belarus declared sovereignty in 1990.
Metropolitan Pavel’s words contrasted with those of Metropolitan Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of the local Roman Catholic diocese, who condemned violence and expressed support for “the weakest and the defenseless.” Together with the families of those arrested, he prayed outside the detention center; his request to visit the premises was rejected. He held a meeting with the interior minister asking for the release of protestors and was promised that the prosecutor general would set up an interdepartmental commission to investigate the violence. Archbishop Tadeusz led an ecumenical gathering of local religious communities in Minsk, which was attended by only one Orthodox priest. He pointed to the wider impact of rejecting dialogue with protestors by commenting, “Physical wounds will heal, but spiritual wounds will not heal quickly.”
Since early August, with each day bringing a flurry of information, two statements made by President Lukashenko stand out. First, in an August 18 meeting of the Security Council, he condemned the idea that the country would benefit from the establishment of an independent (autocephalous) Belarusian Orthodox Church, outside Moscow’s jurisdiction, by stating, “We have always been proud that we have an interfaith world, that no one bothers anyone. Neither the Orthodox, nor the Catholics. Muslims live with us happy, Jews and so on.” Second, at an August 22 rally held in the city of Grodno in the western part of the country, he appealed to the clergy by stating, “My dear clergy, settle down and do your job. People are supposed to go churches to pray. Churches are not for politics.”
At first sight the two statements seem unrelated. Religious communities were encouraged to remain in the private sphere, while state authorities expressed support for the separation of church and state. However, the statements reveal a more nuanced picture.
In my analysis of religious responses to violence and forced displacement in six countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union (Armenia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Moldova, Serbia, and Ukraine), I showed that when states fail to provide support to populations in need, religious communities are among the first to act as providers of human security. First, religious communities have the potential to aggravate violence but also to support peace and reconciliation. And, second, Orthodox churches advance geopolitical state interests with an impact on the political evolution of the wider region. Belarus fits the same patterns.
Lukashenko’s statement in Grodno in which he asked the church to refrain from politics was not accidental. A few days before, a group of clergy sang hymns outside the city cathedral expressing support for those affected by violence. In the words of one member of the clergy: “It is impossible to stand aside—this is not a matter of politics, but of conscience.” Similar statements were reminiscent of the direct church intervention in political life in the first years of state independence. From 1990 to 1995, Metropolitan Filaret (Vachromeev), head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, and three other Orthodox clergy were actively involved in politics as members of the Supreme Council of Belarus, the state’s parliamentary body. At the same time, politicians have also been actively involved in church activities. On many occasions, Lukashenko, although describing himself as “an Orthodox atheist,” attended the meetings of the Holy Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. In 2017, he even suggested that Belarus was the most appropriate place for a meeting between Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Pope Francis to discuss “the problems of the West and the East, the North and the South.”
Religion as a dividing factor has been evident in the ways in which the Orthodox hierarchy responded to mass protests. A few days after Lukashenko was declared the presidential winner, Metropolitan Pavel issued a public congratulatory message; the Holy Synod sent a similar message which restrained from condemning the authorities for recent violence. On the other hand, religion as a unifying factor has been evident in the response of the Orthodox clergy in Grodno, the Catholic and the ecumenical engagement directly supporting the families of those detained by state enforcement bodies. Moreover, Belarusian citizens living outside the country have started to use religious symbols on social media in raising awareness of the latest political events, such as the “Pray for Belarus” campaign.
On August 25, in an unexpected move, the Moscow Patriarchate dismissed Metropolitan Pavel from his post and replaced him with Bishop Veniamin of Borisov and Maryina Gorka. Metropolitan Pavel’s sudden demise may have two outcomes with geopolitical consequences. First, the appointment of Veniamin, the first Belarusian-born cleric to reach the highest clerical position, may be intended to alleviate dissatisfaction that the church was not a national body. National legislation states that the leaders of religious organizations are required to be Belarusian citizens; however, an exception was made for Metropolitan Pavel, who remained a Russian citizen.
Second, the appointment, which most likely will be followed by an increase in the autonomous position of the Belarusian Church within the structures of the Moscow Patriarchate, can be interpreted in relation to attenuate increasing public support for the establishment of an independent Belarusian Church. In early 2020, seven political organizations advanced the “restoration of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church as a national alternative to the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate” to be achieved before 2030. The goal of achieving a national independent church outside Moscow’s jurisdiction is reminiscent of the way in which Ukrainian autocephaly has split Orthodox churches and state interests between Moscow and the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchates. A sign in this direction came from the other side of the border, where Metropolitan Epiphany of Kyiv and All Ukraine encouraged Belarusian citizens to organize themselves into a national church which would fully represent their faith and their country.
Despite the ongoing political uncertainty, the protests have demonstrated that predominant and minority religious communities play a key role in aggravating violence but also in supporting reconciliation and national cohesion. If the regime continues to use more violence against peaceful protesters, religious mobilization will only increase. In Belarus, as in other countries in the region, religion is not only a private matter. On the contrary, religious actors have a direct impact on the ways in which geopolitics and political regimes rise and fall.
This op-ed was supported by the author's participation as Senior Fellow in the "Orthodoxy and Human Rights" project, sponsored by Fordham University's Orthodox Christian Studies Center, and generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and Leadership 100.