Religion and Civil Disobedience: The Orthodox Church and Political Protests in Belarus

© Annette Riedl

Regina Elsner is a Researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS).

The 2020 Belarus Presidential Elections

After the massive falsification of its presidential election results, enormous protests have raged for over two weeks in the Republic of Belarus. Described for many years as the “last dictatorship of Europe,” Belarus has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenka for 26 years. During this time, opposition movements and politicians have been systematically oppressed and every contradiction nipped in the bud. Belarus is the only European country that does not participate in the Council of Europe and does not recognize the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights—a powerful regional instrument of human rights protection on the continent.

As in past elections, the current protests have been brutally suppressed by police, and thousands of men and women have been arrested and tortured in prisons. However, unlike previous protests, protesters have not stopped despite police violence; they continue to protest peacefully and often creatively with unprecedented support from state-owned businesses, hospitals, and the IT industry. It is difficult, however, to foresee how the confrontation between police and peaceful protesters will develop and even more difficult to predict how the political situation and election results will be dealt with.

The Orthodox Church’s Doctrine and Reaction to the Belarus Elections

Besides Russian President Vladimir Putin, among the first official congratulators on Lukashenka’s election victory were the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, and the Metropolitan of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, Pavel. Even though such congratulatory letters are part of the formal, protocol-based activities of Church leadership, they seem downright cynical—they completely ignore the ongoing open violence of law enforcement agencies and the obvious falsification of the elections. In the days after these congratulations, a slow opening-up of the Church’s hierarchy to social processes became apparent, especially among priests and middle-level leadership of Church bishops. The Church’s attitude towards the protests and political situation in Belarus illustrates some important developments within Russian and Belarusian Orthodoxy since the end of the Soviet Union.

Belarus belongs to what is considered the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), which means that the Orthodox Church in Belarus is a part of the ROC and subordinate to the Patriarchate of Moscow. Not only is religious life shaped by this unity, but also the relationship of both churches to their respective states. The principles of cooperation between church and state are described in The 2000 Basis of the Social Concept of the ROC: separate church and state but retain fundamental church loyalty to current government leaders, ambivalently accept democracy, reject any political protests that are potentially dangerous to the government while maintaining a minimal right to resistance, and prioritize state stability and unity. Both Orthodox churches employ these principles for developing relations with the state. Further, in both countries Church leadership welcomes and theologically legitimizes the strategic implementation of so-called “spiritual-moral values” in legislation, education, and the military, i.e., cooperation with the Belarus Ministry of Education, which underlies the importance of traditional Christian moral values for the Belarusian nation, cooperation with the armed forces, and participation in pro-life discourse.

Whenever there have been anti-government protests in the past 30 years, Russian and Belarusian churches have always stood firmly on the side of the government. Protests have been criticized as un-Christian; “Orthodox believers are not good at political protests,” Patriarch Kirill said once in 2012. External foreign actors have been accused of undermining the social consensus and even paying protesters. State violence and government-sponsored violations of civil and political rights usually have been rationalized or ignored. On one hand, the almost unconditional support of an authoritarian state is the natural consequence of Orthodoxy’s theological idealization of patriarchal and strictly centralized rule. On the other, unquestioning support from these churches is evidence of the legacy left by struggling to coexist with an authoritarian state—either imperial or communist—while also theologically justifying the state of affairs as opposed to “godless” Western liberal political regimes.

Initial acknowledgments from Church leadership in Moscow and Minsk of the alleged election victory of Lukashenka correspond with this principle of unconditional loyalty to the state. They thanked the President for “pay[ing] attention to spiritual-moral values . . . such as the fruitful co-operation of the state organs with the Belarusian Orthodox Church.” Meanwhile, the President authorized the police to arrest, beat, and torture peaceful people—and not just during the current election. In its following statements, Church leadership could not ignore the growing police brutality. But when raising his voice against the violence, the Belarusian Church leader did not forget to confirm his loyalty to the state, calling Lukashenka the “protector of the constitution” and repeatedly demanding a mutual cessation of violence and mutual forgiveness and reconciliation.

Statements by Church leadership repeatedly suggest that foreign forces are coordinating the protests, that they are foreign to and manipulated for Belarus. This well-known argument parallels the political narrative coloring corresponding events in Russia and Ukraine (mass protests against falsifying national and local elections in Russia in 2011-2012, 2018-2019, and the 2013-2014 Euromaidan in Ukraine). Two further frequent accusations were likewise alleged:

First, according to the Church, the protests are “political activities” in which the Church cannot participate for reasons of neutrality (“the Church is separated from politics”) and does not recommend participating in them to its faithful. Second, religious acts such as prayers or manifestations cannot be instrumentalized for political goals.

The Russian Orthodox Social Theology: No Place for Civil Society

The aforementioned arguments follow the pattern entrenched in ROC’s doctrine that there is no place for civil society as a separate social phenomenon. In Russian Orthodox social ethics, public life is reduced to relations between individuals and the state. Therefore, all horizontal civil movements or associations criticizing the state can only be explained through the activities of external forces or as political manipulation and are excluded from the Church context.

This lack of a conceptual framework for civil society and its right to criticize the state becomes a problem every time the Church has to react to political protests because its calls for the individual to engage in peaceful behavior, or for the state to fulfill its duty to obey the law, usually misses the civil-society component of such conflicts. If a concept of civil society is missing, then there is also no conceptual need and doctrinal place for freedom and human rights, including political rights, beyond the need for individual survival. Similarly, there is no adequate theological response to systematic, structural suppression of society by the state; oppression is always reduced to the “lawful prosecution” of individuals. As the Orthodox theologian Cyril Hovorun said: “To choose [between the state and society] in favor of society and to stand up against state power is for every church of the Byzantine tradition a quantum leap into the unknown, in a certain sense a step against its own nature.”

The Church considers its believers—including public officials as well as state leadership—as Orthodox believers without perceiving their structural entanglement and civic identity. Thus, the 15 August 2020 statement of the Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Church is addressed “to fellow citizens,” but it remains unclear whether the call to end the violence and to refrain from provocations is speaking to the protesters, the prison guards professing to be Orthodox, or Lukashenka and his associates coordinating police violence. Though statements from Belarusian Orthodox Church leadership now may explicitly mention law enforcement brutality, they are worded so openly that it is not at all evident that Church leadership recognizes structural state violence or systematic election-rigging. Rather, these statements are still vague appeals to “all those involved,” that simultaneously hold everyone and no one responsible. In the letter to fellow citizens on 21 August 2020, the BOC Synod explicitly takes distance to the critical statements of priests and bishops and emphasizes, that all comments from the church “shall not be perceived or interpreted in the interests of any party.”

These emphatically neutral statements from Church leadership are particularly problematic considering that many believers themselves ground their social and political commitment in their Christian identity. Serving as a good example is one highly cited social media post by a Belarusian Orthodox priest that used Bible quotes to argue for fair elections and non-violence of state organs. On the other side, Belarusian state organs also employ Orthodox traditional values like patriotism and stability for strengthening their position, and, according to reports of detainees, police even forced protestors in custody to pray to “Our Father” as a form of humiliation. If the Church remains silent or noncommittal in its statements, then it means that in the Church’s eyes there are no ethical differences between protestors and Lukashenka’s minions drowning the country in blood.

Grassroot Orthodox Milieu and the Protests

While statements from Church hierarchs are unsurprisingly supportive or, at least, consonant with state leadership, the active solidarity of lay people, priests, and even some bishops with protesters in Belarus deserves more attention.

Without waiting for ecclesiastical permission, faithful members of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches have been organizing daily joint prayers for peace and against violence throughout the country since August 13. Orthodox priests expressed solidarity with protesters, calling for fair elections and an end to state violence, intimidation, and torture. Believers published petitions and open letters to the church hierarchy, demanding unanimous condemnation of the violence and the election falsification. In various places, Orthodox priests and lay people provided prisoners and their families with basic needs.

Moreover, Archbishop Artemij of Grodno stood up against electoral fraud and state violence and in favor of peaceful protests in his 14 August statement and sermon on 16 August. On 14 and 15 August, Metropolitan Pavel attended public prayers for peace outside the Orthodox Cathedral in Minsk to speak and pray with his flock. His statements remained evasive, but the mere occurrence of a direct conversation and the opportunity to ask face-to-face questions to the Church leader is a novelty for the Moscow Patriarchate and Eastern Europe Orthodox churches as a whole.

One possible explanation for these new developments could be the specificities of the religious landscape in Belarus. The Orthodox Church in Belarus, unlike in Russia, has less social and political power due to the president’s rather atheistic convictions and his lack of trust in the Orthodox church. Furthermore, and unlike in Ukraine, the Church is not exposed to the competitive pressure of another Orthodox church functioning in the same territory. Both factors lower the Belarus Orthodox Church’s entanglement in religio-political strategies and offer both the faithful and Church leadership more space to seek dialogue with other non-state actors.

Additionally, two external factors probably have influenced the increasing self-confidence of the faithful: first, the growing tensions within the Moscow Patriarchate due to both the expressed support of some Russian priests and laypeople with the political opposition in Russia, and also the decline of the Russian church-state alliance because of anti-COVID measures and their negative influence on the ROC; and second, the mobilization of Orthodox believers in Ukraine during the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests and the later establishment of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2019, which might stimulate the same process within the Belarusian Church.

Yet, the attempt to frame the Orthodox commitment to the protests in Belarus as entirely the product of foreign or external strategies is part of pro-Lukashenka efforts to discredit his opposition. Whether the Belarusian Orthodox Church will shape growing social commitment to freedom, truth, and social justice, or the stabilization of the autocratic regime in Belarus, depends more on an honest and trusting dialogue between local bishops and their believers than on external influences.