DISSATISFACTION is widespread among Orthodox Christians in Belarus, or at least in Minsk, a rare survey suggests: most oppose the submissive stance of their Church’s leaders, and up to one third are threatening to secede to other denominations.
The survey, conducted among 4400 citizens by Christian Vision, suggested that nine-tenths of Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic Belarusians agreed that church leaders should “take an active part in public life, advocating for human rights and condemning violence”. A further 20 per cent believe that they should back protests against the President, Alexander Lukashenko, whose disputed election victory last August has not been recognised by Western governments (News, 14 August 2020).
While more than two-thirds of Catholics and 46 per cent of Protestants supported their church leaders’ position, barely two per cent of Orthodox did the same: most considered that their Church had failed in its duty to “condemn violence and lawlessness” and “give a true assessment of what is happening”.
Almost all Orthodox Christians disapproved of the line taken by their patriarchal exarch, Metropolitan Veniamin, and of congratulatory messages sent to President Lukashenko after his declared victory, by Orthodox leaders in Belarus and Russia.
More than 40 per cent said that they had since stopped attending church; 12 per cent were “turning away from religion”; and 30 per cent said that they were ready to join other denominations, the survey, published by the independent Belsat news agency, showed.
Ties between the Lukashenko government and Churches in Belarus have been uncertain since he was proclaimed victor with 80 per cent of votes after 26 years in power. Mass demonstrations followed, which were met by a brutal response from the President’s security forces.
In a TV interview in January, Metropolitan Veniamin advised against “further protests”, and called on citizens “to care for cohesion and peace in society”. Patriarch Kirill of Russia has also backed the President’s leadership, warning in a message in January against attempts to repeat the 2004-05 “Orange Revolution” in neighbouring Ukraine.
In contrast, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, was barred from re-entering Belarus last summer after criticising the mistreatment of protesters (News, 11 September 2020), and formally resigned in January after his return was negotiated by Vatican diplomats.
Commenting on the survey, an Orthodox theologian and political scientist, Natallia Vasilevich, told Belsat that Metropolitan Veniamin had not responded to letters of complaint, and that many Orthodox citizens believed that their leaders were “either afraid or hiding from the problems”, leaving them “increasingly detached from the people”.
“The church leadership can count on believers still attending church to baptise children and bury the dead, while there are disciplinary measures for clergy who do not agree with its position,” said Ms Vasilevich, who directs Minsk’s Ecumena Centre and sits on the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches. “But it will no longer be possible to intimidate priests who hold new values.”
Christian Vision said that the survey had focused on religiously committed respondents with higher education, 80 per cent of whom were based in Minsk, and that it was unclear how representative the results were of the whole population.