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Natallia Harkovich. Belarusian Peaceful Protests of Christians in 2020-2021

Тэолаг, гісторык, даследчыца.

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Life and Faith Under Oppression: Voices from Political Prisoners and the Persecuted Belarusian Christian Communities. Brussels, European Parliament, 31.05.2023.
Natallia Garkovich, PHD in history, theologist, member of the Christian Vision group.

Since 2020, we have witnessed diverse expressions of peaceful protest against deceit and violence. They have been taking place at all levels of Christian organizations and communities but primarily originated from ordinary believers. I will provide you with a few examples.

Prior to the 2020 president elections, lay Catholics not associated with the Church institutions initiated a social media campaign called «Catholic does not Falsify»

The Orthodox community’s campaign faced pressure and repression from religious and law enforcement authorities.

Following the first days of violence and tortures in August 2020, some protesters were released from the detention facility on Akrescina Street in Minsk. Volunteers of various backgrounds, including priests, pastors, laity of different denominations, and atheists actively participated in providing assistance there. It was not an initiative of official Church structures. On the other hand, the church hierarchy did not forbid it either.

On August 13, 2020, Christians gathered at the Minsk city hall for a joint prayer, seeking peace, justice, and an end to cruel violence. It was a grassroots initiative, it attracted many participants. Afterward, we marched through Minsk, carrying Bibles and icons, passing the KGB building. I even had the chance to read Psalm 90 aloud in front of the prison on Valadarskaha Street in the city center.

On August 21, 2020, a “chain of repentance” took place in Minsk. It was initiated by evangelical Christian Zmicier Dashkevich. He is now, once again, a political prisoner. The event gathered a huge number of both believers and non-believers standing across the whole city.

In autumn 2020, prayers of solidarity were organized for Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kandrusiewich, who was barred from returning to the country following his statements in support of seeking for truth and rejecting violence. Sadly, such acts of solidarity are now impossible in Belarus.

On December 7, 2020, the «Новая Жизнь» (New Life) Full Gospel Church was ordered to vacate their premises under the threat of forced eviction. They had prayed against vote falsification, violence, and for the release of political prisoners since August 2020. Under threat of arrest, they were later prohibited from having public worship. In February 2023, four members of the Church were arrested.

What reality we faced further. Some examples.

In 2021, evangelical Christians produced a series of videos featuring Christians from various denominations addressing the Belarusian people. This initiative was suppressed by the KGB by intimidation and arrests. The videos on YouTube are currently unavailable.

On March 3, 2022, around 100 mothers of young soldiers attended a worship service at Minsk Orthodox Cathedral, praying for an end to the war in Ukraine started by Russia. Police forces including riot police were waiting for them, filming them and demanding documents at the Cathedral entry. Four women were detained for several hours. Two journalists present there were arrested and detained for twelve days.

The regime is so fearful of people that it has restricted and even for some period banned traditional broadcasts of Catholic worship during holidays…

The space available for Christian protest, prayers for peace, opposition to violence, solidarity with political prisoners, and expressions of dissent has gradually shrank and  completely disappeared from the public sphere by now. Solidarity, protest, mutual aid, and public worship in those intentions are now only possible in secret.

If something is absent from the media landscape in the current media era, it appears to not exist. Belarus is becoming “invisible», it gives an impression that nothing is happening there, that «everything has already quieted down» in the country. However, this is far from the truth.

The clandestine nature of the underground is such that there is no connection between different pockets of resistance. There is a sense that our numbers are tiny and there is not activity. Nevertheless, these pockets persist and do not wane. We often only become aware of Christian activists after their detention.

Examples from 2023.

When a priest was detained, the police discovered a tattoo of the historical coat of arms Pahonia on his body. This fact was then publicly disclosed. The regime continues persecution for using our historical flag and coat of arms.

In January police raids targeted Orthodox believers in Homel. Last week, the Lukashenko regime arrested two Roman Catholic priests and one Greek Catholic priest in Viciebsk. On May 28, in Viciebsk, evangelical pastor Alexander Zaretsky was subjected to another administrative arrest for having a white-red-white flag at his profile picture on his social network. And if this takes place in regions, one should assume that even more happens in Minsk.

As someone involved in the Christian Vision group, I am aware of the extensive horizontal social ties people maintain even under severe persecutions.

Acts of solidarity, such as letters and parcels to political prisoners, funding lawyers for them, and supporting their families, have to be kept secret. Unfortunately, what we know and actively participate in, often cannot be publicised. We are unable to publicly speak about the extent of our assistance to persecuted people, lest the nodes of solidarity and mutual support will soon be suppressed, and people — imprisoned. The delicate thread of connection and assistance would be severed. I perceive all these activity as expressions of peaceful Christian protest.

Some of our attempts to arrange priest’s visits to political prisoners of various denominations have been successful since 2020. This is an example we barely can speak about.

We cannot report on such activities or publicly announce them, despite having an effective presence in the media space being essential in the modern world.

And the last thought from me. It is important to acknowledge that the Lukashenko regime exerts control, or makes attempts to control, and applies repressions and pressure on ALL groups of believers from ALL confessions in Belarus via their institutional structures.

Thank you for your attention.