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In Belarus, a society is quietly rediscovering its soul

21 July 2004

By Alexander Belopopsky (*)

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The corridor of the new Orthodox church charity centre on the outskirts of Minsk is lined with dozens of portraits of bearded young men with fine features and searching eyes. The portraits have two things in common: all were priests, and a notice indicates that all died in the 1930s. A closer look reveals that these men were shot during the Stalinist terror that sought to annihilate all forms of religious life in the Soviet Union. They are some of the uncounted thousands of Christians of all churches who suffered persecution, and whose names and fates have only recently become known. In Belarus, as elsewhere in former communist Eastern Europe, churches are struggling to come to terms with their past and, in the process, are helping society to rediscover its soul.

For much of its recent history, the people of Belarus were denied their own history, and the very concept of religion was outlawed. During the Soviet period, attacks on organized religion culminated in the unprecedented martyrdom of the 1930s. Following the ravages of the Second World War, during which Belarus was one of the main battlegrounds and millions perished, the churches were again confronted with repression as Belarus was designated to be the first atheist republic by the Soviet leadership. Dozens of churches were dynamited and clergy interned. By the 1980s, the capital Minsk had only one functioning church for a population of over two million people.

A land-locked country of ten million inhabitants, Belarus has always been a zone of cultural and political encounter… and confrontation. It is located on one of the religious “fault-lines” of Europe, historically pulled between Catholic Poland and Orthodox Russia. Small Protestant communities have been present in the region since Tsarist times, as has as an ethnic Tatar Islamic community. The substantial Jewish community, whose art and culture have so marked the history of the region, all but disappeared during the Holocaust. Over the centuries, the main Christian churches alternated between periods of co-existence and mutual domination, with church buildings forcibly changing ownership and believers obliged to change allegiance. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Belarus was the cradle of “uniatism”: Orthodox Christians were forcibly “united” to Rome and an eastern-rite “Greek Catholicism” was created. Under the Soviets, the “uniates” were driven underground, only to re-emerge in the 1990s. Today, the largest church is Orthodox, while Catholics of both rites form a significant minority.

Over a decade after independence, Belarus is still facing seemingly insurmountable challenges. The upheavals of transition have left many in extreme poverty, and in the countryside, people have returned to subsistence farming. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in neighbouring Ukraine eighteen years ago impacted this country more than any other. In some places, children continue to be born with birth defects, and swathes of agricultural land will remain contaminated for decades.

Politically, transition has proved difficult. Belarus is one of the only former Soviet republics where the communist red stars and statues of Lenin remain untouched. According to the Council of Europe, there are serious concerns about human rights and political freedoms, and the country remains isolated on the international scene. Belarus has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the world, and is the only country in Europe which still carries out executions. While churches benefit from freedoms unknown in the Soviet era, close scrutiny of religious activity continues, and all churches tread a careful line between loyalty and renewal.

But signs of hope abound. The changes which followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union liberated church life, and the revival has been ecumenical. People have turned to the churches as the only link with their own past, and flocked to be baptized. Confiscated churches and monasteries have been re-opened, and “believers” have formed associations that set about rebuilding places of worship… and healing memories.

Fr George, a priest in Minsk’s restored Saints Peter and Paul church, recollects how, in the early 1990s, a group of Belarusian writers, artists and theologians requested the return of the church building from the government. Despite resistance from the authorities, their efforts met with success. For the members of the “brotherhood” (the traditional name for a Christian association), the church offered a radically different perspective on life, and a new value system. “It was our duty to restore this building, not only for its architectural value, but because this was an act of spiritual and cultural healing,” he explains. He proudly shows how the restoration work has uncovered centuries-old frescoes hidden beneath whitewash and accumulated dirt from the years the church served as an archive.

Elena works with the Belarus Round Table, a World Council of Churches (WCC) programme involving Orthodox and Protestant churches in charitable and humanitarian work. “We are emerging from a difficult context, but we need to work together for the good of church and society,” she says. The programme allows churches to link resources and reach out to the most vulnerable in society – prisoners, the elderly, the victims of Chernobyl.

Other spaces of ecumenical collaboration are also preparing the future. In the independent theological faculty of Minsk’s European Humanities University, a professor admits that creative approaches are needed in a complex post-communist society. “The church needs to experiment with new forms of service and witness. Christians cannot return to the past, but we can act as 'salt' in society, we can be present in all parts of social life, to help our country to be restored, to recover,” he suggests hopefully. In the faculty, researchers are working on new forms of cultural and religious dialogue appropriate for a post-communist society.

A new hamburger restaurant in central Minsk encourages an illusion of western affluence. Nearby, troops displaying communist insignia rehearse for a military parade to mark the “liberation” of Belarus by the Red Army sixty years ago. In the distance, the sun glints on the domes of the newly-restored Orthodox Cathedral, in contrast to the neglected communist-era buildings. Belarus is standing with uncertainty at a crossroads. But quietly, society is rediscovering its own history and soul, and in doing so, is glimpsing the way to the future.

Alexander Belopopsky is the coordinator of the WCC's Public Information Team. A lay member of the Orthodox Church (Ecumenical Patriarchate), he was previously responsible for the WCC's Europe Desk. He has written and edited several articles and publications, mainly related to the Orthodox churches, Eastern Europe and diakonia. Belopopsky wrote this feature after attending a meeting of the Steering Committee of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC that took place in Minsk, Belarus, from 16-19 June 2004.

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