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Divine Intervention? Catholic Church In Belarus Sides With Anti-Lukashenka Protesters

Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the head of the Catholic Church in Belarus
Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the head of the Catholic Church in Belarus

As riot police moved in to break up a demonstration in Minsk on August 26 to push demands for the ouster of longtime authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka following his disputed reelection, protesters scrambled.

They found refuge nearby in a towering redbrick building next to Independence Square, the Roman Catholic Church of Saints Symon and Alena, or, as most Belarusians simply call it, the Red Church.

While close at hand, the church might not have been an accidental choice.

During the postelection crisis, the Belarusian Catholic Church has sided with protesting Belarusians seeking change after the disputed August 9 presidential election handed Lukashenka a sixth-straight presidential term.

That contrasts with the Belarusian Orthodox Church, the predominate faith in Belarus that is closely tied to Russia, which has largely remained silent, with even a bit of mild criticism punished with a clerical reshuffle.

"During the ongoing crisis, the Catholic Church has been more outspoken than the Orthodox one because it preserved its political neutrality, as well as religious and moral principles. Catholic priests have condemned the violence and provided great spiritual support for the people of Belarus," explained Hanna Baraban, a Belarusian journalist and political analyst.

Minsk's Red Church
Minsk's Red Church

While its actions may have made it an enemy of the government, the Catholic Church is rising in stature among average Belarusians, becoming a "moral compass for many," argued Baraban.

At the forefront is the church's leader, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, who has paid the price for speaking out.

In mid August, Kondrusiewicz called on the Belarusian authorities to end the violence, saying the bloodshed in the streets of Belarusian cities, as well as the beating and other abuse meted out to protesters, were a "heavy sin on the conscience of those who give criminal orders and commit violence."

As he traveled back to Belarus from Poland on August 31, the 74-year-old Kondrusiewicz -- a citizen of Belarus whose official title is Archbishop of Minsk and Mohilev -- was blocked by border guards.

In his first public comments on the matter, Lukashenka said on September 1 that Kondrusiewicz had been put on a travel ban list because he "mixed church and politics" and "got certain tasks from Poland."

Lukashenka has blamed his closest neighbors to the West, including Poland, of stirring up trouble in Belarus, while accusing NATO of massing troops on the country's western border, a claim the military alliance has rejected.

In the run-up to the vote, Lukashenka also lashed out at Russia, accusing the Kremlin of orchestrating a social-media campaign against him and of sending dozens of mercenaries to Belarus to sow unrest.

But as his popularity dives and his authority slips amid protests and labor unrest, Lukashenka has again turned to Moscow, with Russian President Vladimir Putin vowing aid if need be, possibly military assistance.

Lukashenka's comments came the same day as supporters of Kondrusiewicz held a rally in front of the Red Church as OMON riot police looked on. That gathering came hours after students walked out of class in a student strike action against Lukashenka, with more than 200 brutally detained by police, according to the Belarusian rights NGO, Vyasna.

The plucky priest Kondrusiewicz -- still in Poland -- suggested Lukashenka refused to acknowledge that Belarusians -- especially the younger generation -- are demanding change.

"A new generation of people has grown up that wants to live differently," he told RFE/RL's Russian Service on September 2.

Gary Bauer, commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), told RFE/RL in a statement that the USCIRF “is following events in Belarus closely and with growing concern. Religious organizations are among the last remaining autonomous institutions in the country and as such represent a particular, perceived threat to the Lukashenka regime.”

On The Faith Fault Line Of Europe

Belarus straddles Europe's faith fault line between Eastern and Western Christianity. The recent centuries have witnessed Western- then Eastern-rite Catholicism then Orthodoxy rise and fall in popularity in what would eventually become independent Belarusian territory in 1991.

Today, the Orthodox and Catholic Churches are the two most dominant faiths, explained Baraban, who noted Pew Research Center data from 2017 found 73 percent of Belarusians consider themselves Orthodox and 12 percent Catholic.

Belarusian law, however, recognizes the "determining role" of the Belarusian Orthodox Church in the "historic establishment and spiritual, cultural, and state traditions' development of the Belarusian nation." A concordat grants the church rights and privileges not granted to other religious groups, although the law also acknowledges the historical importance of the "traditional" faiths of Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. Activity by unregistered groups is banned under Belarusian law.

Besides its role in shaping national identity, the Orthodox Church in Belarus also dabbles in politics. In 2004, the then head of the church, Metropolitan Filaret, urged Belarusians to back Lukashenka's controversial referendum on ending presidential term limits. In 2015, senior clergy organized a ceremony to pray for Lukashenka ahead of the 2015 presidential election.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, many churches belonging to the Belarusian Orthodox Church held Easter services on April 19, unlike Orthodox communities elsewhere which either canceled or held them online.

Lukashenka, who ignored calls for any lockdown measures, attended an Easter service and criticized other countries for failing to allow their citizens to do the same.

Orthodox Church In Line With Lukashenka?

The Belarusian Orthodox Church is a "canonical division" of the Russian Orthodox Church, explained Baraban, adding Moscow largely controls the "actions and narratives" of the clergy in Minsk.

"Keeping in mind that in the last few years that the Kremlin actively uses the Orthodox Church as an instrument of Russian soft power, the Belarusian Orthodox Church explicitly or implicitly expresses the political and social messages coming from Moscow."

Lacking formal ties to the Belarusian government, the Belarusian Catholic Church, however, "remains a classic religious institution," added Baraban.

And the postelection crisis in Belarus -- in which some 7,000 have been detained and hundreds beaten amid protests numbering in the tens of thousands -- has only made that contrast starker.

Police Make Arrests As Mass Protests Continue In Belarus
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"The Orthodox Church has been quite concise, a restrained wait-and-see position of Russian authorities toward developments in Belarus," Baraban said.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, was quick to congratulate Lukashenka on his declared victory, saying the authoritarian leader "continuously paid attention to the issues of spirituality."

The head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Paval of Minsk and Zaslaul, veered slightly from this policy by criticizing the government's brutal reaction to the protests and even visiting some of the wounded in hospital. As a result, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church removed him on August 26.

His replacement, Bishop Veniamin, is Belarusian-born, the first in the post, although critics see no advantage to that.

Crisis In Belarus

Read our coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election.

Orthodox priest Alyaksandr Shramko, who was removed in 2018 by Metropolitan Paval for criticizing church leaders, wrote on Facebook: "People! Don't be happy! There is nothing good about this reassignment."

"Veniamin is a supporter of Lukashenka's state ideology," Shramko later told the Polish-based independent Belarusian news site Belsat.

"He does not sympathize with ecumenism, liberalism of all kinds. For him, a firm hand is also a part of his worldview. He is a man with a monastic background, so subordination and hierarchy are important for him," theologian Natallya Vasilevich told Belsat.

Given his outspokenness, Kondrusiewicz, who was born in a village near Hrodna, appears to be the exact opposite.

He told RFE/RL that growing expectations for change in Belarus began "percolating" in 2010, when protests after Lukashenka's declared election victory were brutally suppressed, prompting the European Union and United States to impose sanctions on Belarus.

He said the fact that Lukashenka, in power since 1994, talks of changing the constitution already means the protests are having an impact.

"A year ago I couldn't have imagined that," Kondrusiewicz said.

After the August 26 standoff at the Red Church, where OMON riot police briefly blocked about 100 people inside, the house of worship has become a focal point for other demonstrations.

He said demand for change was being pushed by younger Belarusians who have grown up in a different age.

"Today we see a completely new generation, brought up in completely new conditions, a generation of young people who surf the Internet and travel abroad," he said, while calling for the crisis to be solved peacefully with no more bloodshed.

"People want to resolve this in a peaceful way.... It is necessary to sit down at the negotiating table and try to figure this out."

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky with reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus and Russian Services
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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