Heavily outnumbered by Catholics and Orthodox, the religious minority is nevertheless on the protests’ frontlines.
Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko has been in office for 26 years. After last week’s elections, he says he’s won yet another term. But Belarusians are saying enough is enough, with thousands of them taking to the streets in protest and demanding new elections. Lukashenko has shot down this request thus far.
The majority of Belarusians identify as Christian. Of the country’s roughly 10 million, 73 percent are Orthodox and 12 percent Catholic, according to Pew Research Center data. Though the Protestant community is tiny, it has not been silent.
Last week, the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists in Belarus, the United Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith in Belarus, and the Religious Association of Full Gospel Communities in Belarus released a joint statement asking for prayer.
Protests in 2010 played a key role in changing Protestants’ minds on Lukashenko and the government, says Geraldine Fagan, the editor of the East-West Church Report and author of Believing in Russia – Religious Policy after Communism.
“I think particularly since then, there’s been an increasingly strong pro-democracy movement within the church,” said Fagan. “And that has interacted with the other pro-democracy movements and has just gradually built momentum over the years. I think this is just the dam bursting basically. People just are not prepared to tolerate the restrictions that are actually impinging upon their consciences essentially.”
Fagan joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss the arrival of Protestant Christianity in Belarus, what religious freedom looks like in the former Soviet country, and what the global church can learn from Belarusian Christians.
Let’s start with some basic information about the country of Belarus. Who are its neighbors and what has life been like there since the fall of the USSR?
Geraldine Fagan: Belarus is a pretty small country in the east of Europe, with around 10 million inhabitants. It was a republic that was part of the Soviet Union until that country collapsed in the early 90s. It has actually retained a very strong Soviet-style government since Lukashenko took over in 1994, which is unlike its neighbors.
So to the north, you have the Baltic States, which are all now members of the European Union, along with Poland to the west. And Ukraine, which was also part of the Soviet Union—certainly since 2014, when its pro-Putin president was removed by popular demonstrations—that country too has taken a very strongly pro-democratic line by and large.
And then to the East, you still have Russia. But even though Putin’s reputation is increasingly a dictator, his role—even though it’s also gone on for a couple of decades now—has not been anything as draconian as that of Alexander Lukashenko.
What’s the Belarusian cultural identity? Is the culture similar to any of its surrounding countries? And how is it religiously oriented.
Geraldine Fagan: The thing about Belarus is it’s only really since the collapse of the Soviet Union that it’s had an independent status. It’s a territory that’s gone back and forth between Poland and the Russian empire, so it has influences from both sides.
And in the present-day territory, about the western third of the country was actually in Poland between the two World Wars. And Poland at that point was democratic. So what that meant was a lot of democratic traditions, a lot of national feeling was able to be preserved in that part. And it’s meant that Belarus was never really completely absorbed by the Soviet union culturally.
The further West you go, the more religious life you’re likely to have. The Catholics are a minority. I think there are around 500 churches that are now, which is a similar number to before World War I. They are mostly concentrated in the West where you also have a few Polish speakers. The nominal majority are Orthodox. And then you have something like 6% Protestants, around 1,000 communities now, which is a huge increase since before the Soviet periods.
But I would say that in terms of attendance and active participation in church life, that’s about twice as high as in Russia, according to the few bits of polling that there are. And I would also say that the active Christians are more evenly spread between the different denominations. So it may be slightly fewer Catholics than Protestants, but they’re not insignificant. They’re really playing a very active role and, and social life and public life.
Can you give us a sense of where the Protestant church came from in Belarus? How long has it been in the country?
Geraldine Fagan: Actually you can go back to 1553, which was when the man who was in charge of what is now Belarusian territory converted to Calvinism in 1553. And after his conversion, he sponsored the building of a lot of Protestant churches. That Belarusian territory was known in the west of Europe as a place of refuge for Protestants who were being persecuted in France and England. So the Protestants have this quite amazing period in the 1500s when religious tolerance was codified because, in the local legislation, there were very good relationships with the Catholic community. The King of Poland was really good friends of Nikolai the Black.
But then in the modern period, it’s really from the early 1900s, late 19th century, that you get the first communities on Belarusian territory. But you have several generations of Protestants forming the main Protestant churches in that period.
Lukashenko has been in power almost since the fall of the Soviet Union. Can you tell us a little bit about what his time in office has looked like? How did he transition from a politician in a country that was a democracy to something that felt more authoritarian?
Geraldine Fagan: Belarus was very briefly a democracy, just for a few years. From 1991 to 1994, when he took over, basically people were concerned by the growth of corruption. And he won that first election fairly. He had a military background; he had been involved in the administration of the collective farms in the country. So he had a reputation of being orderly, somebody who could sort out any kind of corruption.
But after that, it’s basically acknowledged that he did not win fairly win any election since then. And he’s now been in power for five terms. So many people just do not know anything else other than him being in power.
He is also very much nostalgic for the Soviet period, as you might expect given the collective farm background. And in those few brief years when Belarus was a democracy, it was not long enough to jettison all the various oppressive organs of the Soviet government. So for instance, he’s retained the KGB in Belarus—it’s still called the KGB. They’re totally proud of that history of oppression during the Soviet periods. They’ve retained a whole network of officials that are responsible for religious affairs, whose job is to kind of control the religious communities. Obviously, there is no political opposition. The whole style of his role has been incredibly Soviet.
It’s in many ways like being in a time warp. If you were to go back a few years and visit, you’ll see the same stuff. You’ll see Lenin, and even until recently the slogans above the building.
And also the economy is being run very much in government-controlled fashion as well. There is private business, but it’s pretty difficult to do anything at all independent of the Lukashenko regime, if not impossible.
There have been rallies over the last couple of days protesting Lukashenko’s regime. Are those happening across Belarus or only in particular areas? Are they cross-cultural? Is there a specific demographic?
Geraldine Fagan: No, it’s absolutely everywhere. And that’s actually one of the surprising things, especially given what I said about the western part being slightly less Soviet. But in fact, they’ve had just as large rallies in the east of the country as in the cities that are closer to Russia.
So it does seem that it’s pretty much across the country. And it appears to be from every walk of life except the political elite, Lukashenko’s immediate circle and cronies, and the security agencies. And even that’s not completely. There have been examples of police resigning and making public statements that they’re not going to be involved in the oppression of the protest movement.
But other than those two categories, there seems to be pretty much everyone involved in the protests.
There have been previous protests against Lukashenko’s rule before. Can you share a little bit about that? And do you think these new protests will have a larger effect or will he manage to hold on to power as he has done before?
Geraldine Fagan: I have studied this through the prism of how the Christian communities have been involved in the protest movement, and after the elections in 2006, there were demonstrations in which Christian communities were involved and were marching using, for instance, The Beatitudes from the gospels as a slogan on their banners. Those demonstrations were relatively small—tens of thousands of people maybe—and they were unsuccessful.
And then again in 2010, after the presidential elections, the protests following those elections were brutally crushed. They were, again, much smaller scale, but I think the Christians then were really surprised by the brutality that was shown by the police. Plenty of people were detained for 10 days, simply for attending that demonstration or even for being nearby and just randomly being arrested and dragged off by the riot police. And that was a kind of a turning point, as far as the Christians were concerned, in terms of how they thought about the Lukashenko regime.
Traditionally in Belarus and elsewhere, even in the former Soviet Union, the Christians’ predominant way of thinking —particularly the Protestant communities—has been to interpret Romans 13 about submissions of the authorities as meaning that they should just accept the Lukashenko regime, just try and follow the law, and basically not raise their voices and not go out to protest.
During the 2010 elections, what I found then was there was a real shift. I interviewed quite a few Protestants who had been active in the democracy movement, and they said that after having to compromise with the restrictions on ordinary religious activity, they just simply couldn’t do it anymore. And they began to look elsewhere in terms of what they should be doing from a Christian point of view.
One Pentecostal I spoke to pointed to a verse in Isaiah 59 saying that the Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice, and He was appalled that there was no one to intervene. And he says that this is telling them that God was not going to just produce freedom for them out of a hat. That they had to get involved and they had to start trying to work for democracy themselves.
And so I think particularly since then, there’s been an increasingly strong pro-democracy movement within the church. And that has interacted with the other pro-democracy movements and has just gradually built momentum over the years. I think this is just the dam bursting basically. People just are not prepared to tolerate the restrictions that are actually impinging upon their consciences essentially.
And you see that in the slogans. One of the slogans I saw it on a placard in the recent demonstrations was just simply, “I have a conscience.”
Can you explain more about how the various Christian denominations and traditions interact with one another? Are there issues that bring them together? And what are some of the issues that keep them apart?
Geraldine Fagan: So the senior clergy of the various churches don’t tend to interact very much. The Orthodox in Belarus are very close to the Russian Orthodox church, and they have even now been very cautious in coming out with any kind of statement that might be interpreted as criticism of Lukashenko. We’re really only seeing that begin to change in the last few days, and even then, only by individual bishops. So they have been very much looking towards Russia and not looking to rock the boat.
The Catholic church has been quite similar, largely because it’s basically reliant upon the state to function, or has been because there have been so many restrictions on foreign citizens being involved in church life. And the Catholic church has a shortage of priests who are Belarusian citizens, so about a third of that clergy are mostly Polish. Over the years, they’ve had about 20 or 30 of those priests expelled from the country just for violating this web of regulations that Lukashenko has imposed on the churches. So they’ve been very cautious and really focused on trying to sort of function.
With the Protestant churches, the leadership has tried very hard to comply with the laws for the most part. And it’s been still mostly down to individual churches.
In terms of collaboration or cooperation between the different churches, that all takes place at a lower level. The Christians who were involved in the pro-democracy movements are of all denominations and they all work together incredibly well. There’s no concern about which church anybody belongs to. And that’s also the basis of any kind of ecumenical movement that exists in Belarus. It’s all one with the pro-democracy movement.
Let’s focus on the Protestant population. Are these people who were previously Catholic or Orthodox who are now moving into a different tradition? Is it mostly Gen Z and millennials, or does it represent people from all different generations? What’s the demographic with regards to socioeconomic status or education level? Give us a sense of what that community looks like.
Geraldine Fagan: So the largest groups are Baptists and Pentecostals, particularly charismatic ones. By and large, they all have some sort of historical origin. So there’ll be families who converted in the early 1900s and form the basis of the community. But the numbers have grown, I would say probably ten-fold in the last hundred years. And they’re not normally converting from Catholic or Orthodox. It’s normally people who’ve previously been pretty secular.
In terms of age, it’s pretty much all ages. There is a strong youth component, particularly in the charismatic churches. One thing that’s quite popular in these churches is Christian rock. And that was actually one way of evading the restrictions on religious activity in that it could appear to be more like an ordinary rock band.
I think that’s what’s quite interesting, is that the restrictions have allowed the Protestant churches to be quite creative in terms of how they address the outside world. So they do manage to have things like youth camps, which might not appear so overtly Christian. And that has helped to draw in a lot of young people.
And then a lot of the pro-democracy demonstrators are young, and they have also become involved in the churches, including the Orthodox and the Catholic churches, driven by that desire for and ideals of truth and justice. It has actually led them to church life as a space within Belarus where those ideals are held.
When we think about Belarus and its neighbors, what are some of the big storylines that you see in the next 5-10 years in the region, specifically in how it’ll affect the Christian community?
Geraldine Fagan: Well so much depends upon how long these various leaders can stay in power. One concern that the Russian government has, possibly its main concern is if the current pro-democracy movement in Belarus is successful, how will that inspire events in Russia itself? I would estimate like a similar level of discontent in many parts of Russia. There are many regions where life is still run along Soviet lines.
For the Christian communities, in Russia, they’re also coming under increasing pressure. Since around 2016, there have been many more restrictions on sharing religious beliefs in public, and in some cases, even in private. So. And the Protestants, in particular, are concerned by the increasing pressure on their ability to provide further advanced theological education because a number of their seminaries have had to stop in the last couple of years.
The pro-democracy movement is directly going to impact how free Christians are in these areas. So a lot is riding on how long these men are able to stay in power.
What do you think the global church can learn from Christians in Belarus?
Geraldine Fagan: I think one quality that really stands out is their determination. I personally just cannot imagine week-in-week-out having to follow—at least outwardly—all these various rules and regulations year after year. Just fighting for the simple rights to have your own property, and to gather in it as a Christian community and to know that somewhere in that congregation, there’s going to be people who were spying on you and watching what you’re preaching in your sermon.
I think that the fact that they managed to weather that for so long and come out with such an optimistic, campaigning spirit for a better democratic future is really quite impressive.
When we think about praying for Christians who are in oppressive regimes, we often pray for perseverance and encouragement. What might be something people wouldn’t think to pray for Belarusian Christians right now?
Geraldine Fagan: So this week, among the thousands of people who were arrested and brutally beaten in detention centers, there was a Belarusian Baptist, and I’ve been in touch with him and I asked him this exact question.
And he told me that his request for Christians in the West will pray that the brutal treatment of ordinary citizens will be ended, that there will be a peaceful transition of power away from Lukashenko, and most of all, he asks for prayers that there might be a spiritual awakening in Belarus and that more people will turn to God and ask for his help.