CHURCH leaders in Belarus have appealed for peace and dialogue, as mass protests and strikes continued against the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko after disputed elections on 9 August (News, 14 August).
“The past week has been a time of national upheaval for all of us, as confusion and division reached our common home,” the Belarusian Orthodox Church’s governing synod said.
“We categorically condemn violence, torture, humiliation, groundless detention, extremism in all its forms and manifestations, lies, and treachery — if we do not come together to stop this confrontation today, it will have irreversible destructive consequences for our country.”
The appeal was issued on Monday as President Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, was heckled as he gave an address at a tractor plant in Minsk, and European Union leaders prepared to discuss sanctions later in the week.
The synod urged “provocateurs and instigators” to avoid “destabilising the country and dividing the people”, but also called on the Belarusian government to “stop the violence”, and ensure that “those involved in atrocity and cruelty” were brought to justice.
The country’s minority Roman Catholic Church also urged citizens to make Belarus a place of “love, truth, justice, and peace”.
“Blood has been shed, leaving many physical and moral victims, including peaceful and innocent people of all ages,” the RC Bishops’ Conference said, in a message read in churches on Sunday. “We condemn every act of violence committed by brother against brother. We therefore call again for an end to unnecessary aggression, and for dialogue for humanity and society.”
Up to 200,000 people joined a Sunday demonstration in the capital, a week after Belarus’s official commission awarded President Lukashenko his sixth election win, with 80.1 per cent of votes in contrast with the 10.12 per cent of his nearest challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old teacher, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania after the ballot.
It was the largest in a wave of post-election protests, which had left at least two dead, hundreds injured, and more than 7000 detained by this week.
On Tuesday, however, President Lukashenko accused opposition activists of attempting “to seize power”, and awarded medals to security officials involved in the crackdown.
The Patriarchal Exarch of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Pavel Ponomarev of Minsk & Slutsk, ordered peace prayers at all churches and monasteries “for those holding power in the country and those who live in it”, while the Church’s media office said that Orthodox clergy and laity had assisted the detained and injured.
A church spokesman, Sergij Lepin, told Radio Liberty that Metropolitan Pavel had “asked forgiveness” for sending President Lukashenko “premature congratulations”, after viewing coverage of the mass detentions, although the media office denied claims that the congratulatory message had been withdrawn.
Speaking to journalists before visiting injured protesters and onlookers at a Minsk hospital on Monday, the Metropolitan urged “those coming to Belarus with impudent aims” to return home, and said that he hoped to discuss a “peaceful resolution” with government representatives.
Media reports, however, said that Metropolitan Pavel faced growing opposition from Orthodox clergy, some of whom have joined peace marches, and that he could be forced from office if President Lukashenko resigned.
Orthodox Christians nominally make up around half of Belarus’s population of 9.4 million, according to 2017 data; Roman Catholics constitute 12 per cent, alongside smaller Protestant communities.
On Tuesday, the Archbishop of Minsk & Mahilyow, Mgr Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, president of the RC Bishops’ Conference in Belarus, urged the Interior Minister, Yuri Kuraev, to allow priests to visit detainees, but said that he had received no official response to an offer to convene an “emergency round table” of the government and opposition.
“The beating of peaceful demonstrators who want to know the truth, their cruel treatment and inhumane detention, is a grave sin on the conscience of those who give criminal orders and commit violence,” Archbishop Kondrusiewicz told state officials in a weekend message.
In its appeal on Monday, the Belarusian synod said that the Orthodox Church would remain “outside politics”, and called on citizens to ensure that the country remained “peaceful, independent and prosperous”.
The Pope urged “respect for justice and rights” during Sunday prayers in Rome, and said that he was “following attentively the post-electoral situation”.
The head of Ukraine’s newly created independent Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epifaniy Dumenko, however, urged Orthodox Belarusians to protect their “democratic and independent future” by seeking their own self-governing Church.