Katja Richters is an independent researcher who earned her Ph.D. on church-state relations in the former Soviet Union from the UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies in London. Richters is author of The Post-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church: Politics, Culture and Greater Russia. Her recent work focuses on the Orthodox churches in contemporary Japan and the Philippines.
The protests against the re-election of President Lukashenka, which are currently taking place across Belarus, are the most serious challenge that Europe’s so-called last dictator has experienced since assuming office in 1994. They are, however, not the first protests against his leadership and the tactics he and his allies use to keep him in power—similar protests had broken out before, especially after his rigged re-election in 2010, but were violently suppressed and eventually petered out. Back in 2010, the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) had offered less support to the Lukashenka regime than it had done before, and some members of the clergy and laity had openly endorsed the opposition candidate Vital Rymasheuskii. Given this history, it seems as if there is a positive correlation between the BOC’s support and Lukashenka’s ability to stay in power. Or, to put it differently, the regime is more likely to fall if it is not backed by the country’s largest church with which up to 85% of the population identify.
With this in mind, it was of vital importance for Lukashenka to keep the BOC on his side in the current climate. Metropolitan Pavel, who headed the church between December 2013 and August 2020, however, seemed to be moving in the opposite direction. Let’s look at these developments in chronological order. The church had been calling for prayers for the Belarusian people during the election campaign, but these seem to have been of a rather neutral nature. Things were still going the regime’s way the day after the polls closed and the protests started as both Pavel and the Russian Patriarch Kirill publicly congratulated Lukashenka on his re-election.
Soon after, however, the Belarusian hierarch started sending mixed signals during a press conference he had called to comment on the political situation. On the one hand, he intimated that those who are protesting were foreign troublemakers or that they were children who do not understand what they are doing and that they might be receiving financial incentives for their actions. On the other hand, however, he also mentioned that he does not judge either side and called on state representatives to find a solution to the current crisis. While these latter statements might seem rather neutral from a democratic point of view, they might already raise eyebrows in a dictatorship like Belarus.
Two days later, on August 14, the metropolitan had apparently abandoned his view that the protestors might be foreign agents and called them, as well as state security officials, members of the Belarusian Church. He also highlighted that it was Lukashenka’s duty to ensure that the rule of law prevailed and that the security officials did not attack innocent bystanders. Metropolitan Pavel thus put pressure on the president to take responsibility for at least some of the events that have taken place in the aftermath of the election and to contribute to a solution of the crisis. After this day, the metropolitan refrained from commenting further on the political situation, but the BOC’s Holy Synod issued a collective statement which is more supportive of the Lukashenka regime than its top hierarch was.
There were, however, developments which suggest that the BOC continued to move closer to the protestors not rhetorically, but in practice. On August 15, the church’s official website announced that a group of Minsk-based volunteers was providing support (bringing food, medicine, and other essentials) to those who had been injured and/or freed from the Okrestina and Zhodino prisons. On Sunday, August 16, Archbishop Artemii of Grodno attracted considerable attention because he spoke out very clearly against the Lukashenka regime. This was followed by Metropolitan Pavel visiting patients who had been hospitalized as a result of the violence surrounding the protests, and on August 19, a representative of the BOC’s department in charge of prisons paid a visit to the inmates of the notorious Okrestina prison and gave them all a piece of blessed fruit to commemorate the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord.
These developments evidently crossed a red line, as on August 25, Metropolitan Pavel officially asked the Moscow Patriarchate, which has jurisdiction over the BOC, to be relieved of his duties as head of the Belarusian Church. The Moscow Patriarchate duly complied and moved him to a diocese in southern Russia. It also appointed Veniamin, the bishop of Borisov and Marinogor, as Metropolitan Pavel’s successor in Minsk. The reason officially given for this decision was that the Moscow Patriarchate felt it was urgent time for a person who was born in Belarus to lead the BOC. Bishop Veniamin meets this criterion as his place of birth is in Brest oblast, whereas Pavel was born in Karaganda (Kazakhstan) and is a Russian citizen. Since Bishop Veniamin’s elevation to the Minsk See, prayers for the Belarusian people have continued, but Veniamin has been much less outspoken about the political situation than his predecessor. His main message so far has been to intensify prayer and fasting to solicit God’s help in overcoming the current crisis.
It is noticeable that the change of hierarch in Minsk has made the BOC much more apolitical and arguably more conservative than it was before August 25, which certainly suits Lukashenka. Given the time of Metropolitan Pavel’s resignation, it is unlikely that he tendered it voluntarily. Serving as head of the BOC is prestigious, and in a time of political uncertainly an experienced leader is of benefit to any church. It is also unlikely that the Moscow Patriarchate actively encouraged Pavel to leave for Russia. This is so because the Russian hierarchy repeatedly thanked him for his service and found him another leadership post. All this suggests that it was Lukashenka who initiated this move and that he was able to impose his will on the Orthodox Church.