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Defamation of believers by the authorities and propagandisits

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Believers and religious organizations are systematically subjected to insults and persecution for their Christian and civic position by government officials, the pro-government media and activists. Hate speech is widely used. The persons detained by security forces may be insulted, humiliated and mocked for their faith or religious affiliation in the so-called “repentance videos” recorded agains the will of the detainees and published on media resources specialising in such content.

 This monitoring by the Christian Vision group contains incidents up to 12 February 2024.

1. Defamation of Catholics

2. Defamation of Orthodox Christians

3. Defamation of Protestants

Defamation of Catholics

After the members of the Roman Catholic Church, including their leader, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, spoke out against the army’s lawlessness, Belarusian state media and the regime’s mouthpieces targeted Catholics. The Media IQ project analysing state propaganda listed listed a number of examples of anti-Catholic defamatory narratives between March and August 2021.

On 7 September 2021, the newspaper of the Minsk regional executive committee, Minskaya Prauda, published a caricature of Catholic priests on its front page. One of the figures had a swastika instead of a pectoral priestly cross, a white-red-white national flag of Belarus under his arm, and a speech bubble showed him singing the Mahutny Boža (Almighty God) hymn; in another panel, the cross was also transformed into a swastika.

The author of the image is Anton Astrouski. The Christian Vision group issued a statement rotesting the fact that “the cartoon portrayal of Catholic priests with swastika-shaped crosses has signs of a deliberate attempt to defame the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus, creats a negative image of Catholic clergy as ‘Nazis’ and incites religious hatred or strife against Roman Catholic clergy. An important fact is that the caricature was published on the front page of the official newspaper of the executive authority; this shows support for such anti-Catholic attacks from the state and encourages hostility against the entire Roman Catholic community — a religious minority — in Belarus.”

Humiliation of human dignity and insulting believers are practiced during the recording of so-called “repentance videos”. On 31 May 2023, Uladzislau Beladzied, a catechism teacher at the Minsk Roman Catholic Archcathedral, was detained. During the peaceful protests of 2020, he actively participated in interdenominational Christian prayers for ending violence and lawlessness in the situation of the developing political crisis in Belarus. The believer was subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment. He was forced to take part in a so-called ‘repentant’ video, in which he appeared very depressed. In the video, Beladzied was forced to declare being a homosexual twice; this puts him at additional risk of persecution in places of arrest or detention. The video filmed by police presented the believer in a humiliating and insulting manner; it included sexually explicit photos and videos in which Beladzied allegedly featured. At the moment, Beloded is a political prisoner.

On 15 June 2023, a Telegram channel linked to the security forces, Shkvarka.2, published offensive content about Rev. Antoni Klimantovich, the rector of the Roman Catholic Cathedral. Also, screenshots of his mobile phone correspondence  — the phone had been seized during a search — were shared. Rev. Klimantovich was named a “spiritless, filthy priest” and accused of passing over the information about the church service for a political prisoner Maryia Kalesnikava to the bot of the Motolko Help Telegram-channel. Propagandists also used his hunting hobby as evidence of the clergyman’s alleged immorality. The Belarusian Catholic portal Katolik.Life stated that hunting is allowed by canonic law and that publishing such propaganda is an attempt to apply pressure on the Church. On 6 July 2023, the leadership of the Minsk-Mahilioŭ Archdiocese was forced to dismiss Rev. Klimantovich from the rectorship of the Cathedral and transfer him to  parish in Zaslaŭje.

Hrodna-based propagandists carry out systematic and intentional efforts to discredit the Catholic clergy. In February 2024, the Christian Vision group monitored the Telegram channels of the security forces in Hrodna, in particular – the Hrodna Leaks. A search on the channel for the keywords ‘priest’, ‘Catholic’, and ‘church’ showed that the publications denigrating the Catholic clergy appeared there with a constant frequency, at least every two weeks, and up to several messages a day. The style of the following message is typical of the Hrodna Leaks: “In this church cesspool, everything is like in a jar with snakes: they eat each other, denounce – all to get a fatter place” (post from 31 January 2024).

Defamation of Orthodox Christians

Propagandists and pro-government activistsharass also Orthodox priests and lay activists for their Christian and civic position. They mix hate speech with quotes from the Gospel creating a blend of aggressive propaganda and distorted Christianity. The Christian Vision group has been recording such facts from the beginning of 2023. From our observations, most frequently such manipulations occur on the state-owned TV channel STV, and come from presenters Ryhor Azaronak and Yauhen Pustavoy.

On 8 May 2023, on his Telegram-channel, one of the most outspoken Belarusian propagandists, Ryhor Azaronak of the STV channel, expressed indignation at the sermon of Archimandrite Aliaksei (Shynkevich). The sermon was said in the Minsk Cathedral on the same day. It included a call to pray for the repose of the soul of the recently departed first leader of independent Belarus, Stanislau Shushkevich. In the early 1990s, Shushkevich assisted the Orthodox Church a lot.  Referring to an anonymous and false denunciation, the propagandist used such insults against the respected priest as Gapon, Judas, and Christ-seller who must be “etched out of the body of the Church”. Azaronak also appealed to the “state security institutions of Belarus” to sort out the situation in the Cathedral.

On 4 February 2023, in his program on the STV state-owned channel, Azaronak verbally attacked Natallia Vasilevich, an Orthodox theologian and moderator of the Christian Vision group. The ttack was trigerred by the group’s Telegram-channel publication of a story about two teenage girls who set fire to an icon near a church in Minsk. In the story, Metropolitan Veniamin’s role in initiating a criminal case against the children was discussed. The propagandist called Vasilevich a “vile reptile”: “Here they are, the enemies of the people, of Bat’ka [a nickname for Lukahsenko] and Christ. Here they are, blasphemers and bastards. The Telegram-channel of ecumenist Natalka [derogatory for of the name] Vasilevich, a vile reptile and heretic, is indignant and seems upset over the disproportionate punishment”.

Insults and humiliations of believers also occur in the comments to the so-called ‘repentance videos’, which are filmed following a detantion. On 10 November 2022, a video featuring an Orthodox believer, a specialist in sect studies, Aleh Nahorny, was published. Nahorny was detained for anti-war texts on 8 November 2022. On the GUBOPiK (Ministry of Internal Affairs Department for Combating Organised Crime and Corruption; routinely used for political persecutions and violence) Telegram channel Nahorny is referred to as a ‘sectarian’ and accused of allegedly distributing “fascist symbols”. Nahorny, however, has consistently opposed extremism and radicalism. He was sentenced to a 15-day administrative arrest under art. 19.10 of the Administrative Code (Propaganda or public demonstration, production, distribution of Nazi symbols or paraphernalia).

Pro-government activists allied with security forces frequently turn the latter against Orthodox Christians disloyal to the regime.

Olga Bondareva, a pro-government activist, regularly harasses religious figures. Following her denounciation, a Hrodna-based Orthodox priest Andrei Nazdryn was subjected to a “preventive conversation on compliance with the law and preventing extremist offences and crimes” with the police. Bondareva got outraged by the priest’s condemnation of the war against Ukraine, which became known in May 2022. In her Telegram channel, in derogatory and insulting manner, Bondareva called Nazdryn a “white-red-white priest” who allegedly “stoked for a coup d’etat,” published the “Nazi anthem” [i.e. the Mahutny Boža – Almighty God anthem], reposted extremist materials and supported the “terrorist regime of the Ukrainian Reich”.

In July 2022, Bondareva dedicated several denunciation posts to the family of Archpriest Pavel Siardziuk, his wife Veranika, chair of Matulya, a family and motherhood support center, and his mother-in-law, journalist Tamara Viatskaya. All this is despite the entire family demonstrating active loyalty to the Lukashenko regime.

On 7 May 2023, Bondarava published a derogatory and offensive post against Archpriest Anatoly Nenartovich and his family.

On 3 January 2023, a denunciation of Rev. Dzianis Karastsialou, a priestfrom Minsk, was  published  on Bondarava’s Telegram channel. She accused him of praying “for the defenders of Ukraine” on 2 January 2023. The blogger called on the security forces to take action against the priest. Following the denunciation, Rev. Karastsialou was detained by GUBOPiK (Ministry of Internal Affairs Department for Combating Organised Crime and Corruption); his so-called ‘penitential video’ was published in one of the police-related Telegram channels. In the video, the priest was forced to explain that following the liturgy on New Year’s Day, he said the moleben (Paraklesis) ‘for the soldiers and defenders of Ukraine’ requested by a parishioner. The police also forced the priest to strip to the waist and photographed a tattoo on his right shoulder consisting of the Pahonia coat of arms and the inscription ‘Belarus’. The photo of the priest stripped to the waist was also published by the police on the internet. He was sentenced to 14 days of arrest.

Social media associated with security forces regularly make derogatory statements about Orthodox laity and clergy. On 5 July 2023, commenting on an Orthodox church services in the Belarusian language in a Warsaw parish of the Polish Orthodox Church, the Yellow Plums pro-government Telegram channel referred to the Belarusian Orthodox priests of the autocephalous church that existed on the territory of Belarus under the occupation during the World War II, “the autocephalous sect clowns in robes”. The clergy of this Church, however, were in good standing, and some of them were even canonized in the Russian Orthodox Church, such as the hieromartyr Seraphim (Shahmut’). The aforementioned Telegram channel called the priests of the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church, who in Warsaw said the liturgy in the Belarusian language, “Polish autocephalists” who “immediately after the gay parade in Warsaw” teach the Belarusian Orthodox laity “how to get to heaven in a twisted way.” On 27 June 2021, the same Telegram channel referred to the Orthodox theologian Natallia Vasilevich’s religious conversion in derogatory terms: “she experienced religious catharsis and went nuts”.

Defamation of Protestants

The so-called ‘repentance videos’ on security forces’ social media mock the arrested believers and religion.

On 11 October 2022, a Telegram channel associated with security forces published a so-called ‘repentant video’ featuring Siarhei Paulouski, a pastor of the New Generation charismatic church in Minsk. He has been working with alcohol and drug addicts for over ten years and was the director of the Way of Freedom charity. Mocking comments accompanied the video alleging that the pastor used the rehab centre patients for his own propaganda purposes. The pastor was subjected to a twelve-day administrative arrest.

On 22 October 2021, the house of Evangelical Christians, Ales’ Sakalukha and his wife Maryna Sakalukha, was searched. They were detained, and the husband was arrested for 15 days. The pro-government Telegram channel of Ilya Begun published Ales Sakalukha’ interrogation video, In a humiliating manner, it mocked his religious views and, in particular, his religious motivations for taking part in peaceful protests. Begun mocked Sakalukha’s religious faith and experience calling them “psychiatry”, “religious deviations”, and a drug ‘high’ allegedly caused — since he worked as a flight attendant for Aeroflot — by an “aviation kerosene addiction”. He referred to Sakalukha as a “drug-addicted apostle”.

On 11 July 2023, the Minskaya Prauda newspaper of the Minsk regional executive committee published Dyiana Shybkouskaya’s article under the tendentious title, In The Wake of The Accident Near Maladziečna. How a Pastor from The New Life Church Shows Off With Parishioners’ Money. The article discussed an accident that occurred on 10 July 2023 in the Maladziečna district, when a bus with 50 children aged 8 to 10 years old overturned on an worn out road. Most of those children and adults attended the New Life Church. They were travelling for a family vacation together. The inconsisten and far-fetched character of the accusations in the article reproduced in other propaganda outlets was discussed in detail by the Christian News of Belarus.