HOMEL, Belarus -- Three beggars -- a woman and two men with ruddy faces and chapped hands -- are standing in the early morning snow outside the Peter and Paul Cathedral in the southeastern Belarusian city of Homel.
One of the men, with sad eyes and a graying beard, introduces himself as Vyachaslau.
"I have three more years until my pension. This is an ancient tradition -- people stand outside of the church and other people help them," Vyachaslau says. "Homeless. I am homeless. I have no home. Nothing. I sleep in basements. Basements. The state doesn't help at all, but kind people help."
Official figures put the absolute-poverty rate in Belarus at 5.2 percent in 2010, but that figure rose to 7.8 percent last year as the country's currency was repeatedly devalued. A further 13 percent live in relative poverty. Although the country has socialist-style safety nets in place, its state-dominated Soviet-style economy is faltering and a growing number of people are beyond the help of the state. The result, anecdotal evidence suggests, has been an increase of beggars in the cities.
Begging has deep roots in this Orthodox Christian country, especially in the vicinity of churches.
Natalia Vasilevich is the editor of the "Tsarkva" website
and an expert on Orthodox culture in Belarus.
"In general, we can say that there is a subculture of beggary that is, in a sense, connected with Orthodox spirituality," she says. "Many Orthodox saints were beggars."
And, indeed, many Belarusians respond with compassion. The other man begging outside the Homel church, who identified himself as Syarhey, says one Good Samaritan recently saved him from the bitter winter.
"A woman came up to me and looked me over. My clothes were in tatters, filthy. And she said, 'Wait here. I'll bring you some clothes.' So I waited for her the whole day," Syarhey says. "But she brought the stuff and, basically, dressed me completely. Now I'm standing here all clean, in shoes. I was standing here barefoot. It was January and I was barefoot. I didn't even have socks."
Recently, however, police in Homel and other Belarusian cities have been actively chasing beggars away from Orthodox sites. Maria Bahdanovich, an activist with the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, says she has personally witnessed such operations.
Maria Bahdanovich, an activist with the Belarusian Helsinki Committee
"I twice appealed to the central police department. At first, I was told that they are only chasing off people who are drunk. And at first that was true," Bahdanovich says. "But then they started chasing away everyone. So I went back and they told me something completely different. They said that the people standing there look 'asocial' and their lifestyle is 'shameful' and, in general, they are hooligans. They also said the church had requested help from the police."
Bahdanovich says local Orthodox Church authorities told her beggars are harassing believers and preventing them from praying.
Spoiling The View
But begging is not illegal in Belarus, Bahdanovich adds, and she sees a political subtext behind the police actions.
"The authorities want to clean the beggars from the park and the territory of the cathedral. They want, apparently, to make it a pretty place for respectable people and so are covering up the problem," Bahdanovich says. "Unfortunately, we have poor people in our society. It is really shameful to take advantage of their defenselessness."
Analyst Vasilevich says the situation is the same in the capital.
"As you may know, Minsk is regarded as a clean city, and such people gathering around monuments and cathedrals spoil this nice picture of a clean city for our authorities," Vasilevich says. "So they decided to settle things with all beggars -- that is, with the people who look like they are poorly provided for. The authorities try to isolate them somehow."
Meanwhile, in the cold morning air outside Homel's Peter and Paul Cathedral, a pensioner who gives her name as Vera tells her story as she waits for the next passerby.
"They have to let us stand here. My God, we aren't harming anything. We have to get a little something for food," she says. "Life is hard. Very hard. My son is in the hospital. I have a really small pension. I have to pay my utilities, and I have no money for food. And I have a small grandson -- just 18 months old. He is hungry. OK, I'm old and I can stand it. But this child -- he shouldn't have to suffer. He shouldn't!"
Based on reporting from Homel by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, with contributions from correspondents Robert Coalson and Jan Maksymiuk in Prague