ZOiS Spotlight 2/2021

Churches and Protest in Belarus: Activism or Liberation Theology?

by Regina Elsner 20/01/2021
The banner reads „Let my people go“, a bible quotation from Exodus 5:1. Andrei Strotsau

The churches in Belarus were rarely visible at political protests in the past – but this changed abruptly in 2020. Both before and after the presidential election in August, a number of church representatives adopted a critical stance on the country’s politics – a remarkable development in several respects. Belarus is less religious than other post-Soviet countries. Although the majority of the population self-identifies as Orthodox, the Belarusian Orthodox Church has less cultural significance and less lobbying power than its Russian and Ukrainian counterparts. The Roman Catholic Church – the second largest faith community – has a fairly high public profile, but does not aspire to represent national identity in the same way as the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, for example. Protestant congregations and other faith communities are very much in the minority. Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s authoritarian government guarantees freedom of religion, but this is conditional on loyalty and non-involvement in politics. Unsurprisingly, then, none of the faith communities drew attention to themselves by actively participating in, or speaking out about, previous political protests.

New visibility of Christian protesters

This all changed during the 2020 presidential election. Ahead of the ballot, the Catholic faithful urged election officials not to support possible vote-rigging; their campaign slogan was “Catholics don’t falsify”. Shortly before the election, Orthodox believers launched their own campaign, “Orthodox against falsification, degradation of the individual and oppression”, which attracted large numbers of supporters online, while Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant priests spoke out against the government’s pre-election anti-opposition measures in their sermons and on social media. Among Orthodox believers, the customary accusations that political activism is “un-Orthodox” were firmly countered with references to respect for fundamental Christian values such as integrity, justice, freedom and non-violence.

Confronted with the brutal suppression of the non-violent demonstrations that erupted across the country against the clearly rigged election results, Christian protest developed a new momentum of its own that was unique in the post-Soviet space. Although Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Metropolitan Paul of Minsk promptly congratulated Lukaschenka on his election victory, in keeping with convention, Metropolitan Paul met hospitalised victims of police violence soon afterwards, attended ecumenical prayers for peace in person and spoke with the faithful about the situation of the protesters and detainees. The Roman Catholic

Archbishop of Minsk, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, voiced sharp criticism of the government’s response. The consequences were not long in coming: Metropolitan Paul was removed from office by the Moscow Patriarchate, while Archbishop Kondrusiewicz was denied entry by the Belarusian government after a visit abroad. However, this did not deter the two churches from maintaining their outspoken and well-publicised position. The church leaders may have been silenced, but priests and bishops were vocal in their criticism of the crackdown. The solidarity of the faithful with the political detainees and victims of police brutality was, and remains, unbroken and is expressed in the form of public prayers, open letters and statements, and material support.

Church tradition and civil society practice

In the Catholic and the Protestant Churches, the public opposition to political and social injustice is rooted in a theological tradition of social ethics. That being the case, it would be reasonable to expect a public expression of support from the Vatican for the Catholic bishops’ position on the political situation in Belarus. In an open letter to Pope Francis, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya makes erudite references to the Holy Father’s recent Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti on Fraternity and Social Friendship and appeals to him to condemn the government authorities’ brutality. In view of this impressive demonstration of theological knowledge within the opposition Coordination Council’s team, the silence from Rome and the ambivalent position of Vatican diplomats in Minsk are particularly questionable.

This theological tradition of social ethics is absent from Orthodoxy. That being the case, the stamina of the Orthodox participants is even more remarkable, given that it involves taking a stance not only against political injustice but also against the Church’s own loyalty to the unjust regime. Several priests who had shown solidarity with the victims of the crackdown were not only interviewed by the state’s security services and, in some cases, arrested, but were also given warnings or were suspended by the church leadership. In early January, the authorities even threatened to disband the Orthodox Church unless it silenced the critics. However, as various resignations and dismissals in the church leadership showed, critical thinking about social issues is not a marginal phenomenon within the Church that can be easily silenced by discrediting and persecuting individual activists.

A grassroots theological awakening

Listening to some of the more outspoken Orthodox voices confirms the impression that this is less about sporadic activism in response to the protests and more about a systematic theological and critical reflection on the structures of social and political injustice. The online sermons, blog articles and discussions in social networks by figures such as Bishop Artemii of Grodno, priests Alexander Kuchta (Minsk), Dmitrii Pavlyukevic (Grodno) Georgii Roy (Grodno), Vladimir Drobyshevsky (Gomel) and Alexander Shramko (Minsk) and the independent theological journal Zbožža bear witness to a longer tradition of appraising social and political events in Belarus, and in the Orthodox Church itself, through the lens of Orthodox social ethics.

This social position, with its theological foundations, also refutes the accusation of politicisation customarily made by the church leadership and political influencers in an effort to discredit civil society engagement. What’s more, Orthodox participation in the protests does not aspire to build national or any other form of identity. At the forefront are fundamental ethical demands for non-violence, liberty and truth, free from political slogans or hostile images. The active ecumenical participation in the work of the Coordination Council is also remarkable in that respect. The Christian Vision working group offers a fresh perspective for the new Belarus that does not claim any kind of moral or historical precedence. Alongside religious pluralism and a secular political elite, the solid expertise of the participating theologians is key.

Is the talk of Orthodox liberation theology to describe these unaccustomed developments justified? Only time will tell whether these theological interpretations will be established on a more systematic basis, enabling them to be applied to other social issues beyond the current political crisis. International examples show that a consistent theological approach is not conditional upon church leaders’ approval. However, continued distance to political ideologies and international solidarity among academic theologians are important aspects in unlocking its socio-ethical potential.

Regina Elsner is a theologian and researcher at ZOiS.