Religious Sphere: A year of challenges and trials

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Summary

In 2020, two unprecedented phenomena – the COVID pandemic and the presidential election with subsequent protests determined the main trends of religious life as well as in the society in general. Moreover, it is in their context that the religious component acquired a much greater than usual significance and influence on the life of society. In turn, religious denominations were subjected to tests that revealed latent trends – both internal confessional and general.

Trends:

  • Increased initiative of laypeople and ordinary clergy, awareness of the importance of social activity of believers;
  • The desire of believers for greater independence, self-organization and autonomy, similar to civil society;
  • Increasing Christian solidarity, which contributes to the development of ecumenical cooperation and dialogue;
  • Changing the attitude in society to the religious sphere, represented by non-indifferent bearers of faith who follow their beliefs in specific cases;
  • Increasing control over the religious sphere by the official authorities and the use of religious discourse in propaganda.

Churches and the pandemic

The coronavirus was a problem on a global scale even before its spread affected Belarus. This allowed religious organizations to sort out the situation to some extent ahead of time. The problems of the coronavirus pandemic in the religious sphere appeared in two aspects.

Firstly, a purely pastoral, spiritual aspect: it was necessary to formulate the attitude of the church to such an unexpected test for people, to respond to their fears, to respond to the need for spiritual and prayerful help to the sick. Secondly, the sanitary and epidemiological aspect related to sanitary measures and the extent to which they are permissible in the organization of rites.

The official response to the epidemiological situation followed almost simultaneously from the two main religious denominations of the country in the middle of March.

The Moscow leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, of which the Belarusian Exarchate is also a part, was the first to react. The Synod issued a statement addressing both of the above-mentioned aspects. Sanitary and preventive measures were prescribed in detail in the instructions for parishes and monasteries of the Moscow diocese approved by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia. It served as a model for instructions on the ground, including within the Belarusian Exarchate. Subsequently, the corresponding appeal of the Synod of the BOC and a circular letter from the Patriarchal Exarch, Metropolitan Pavel (Ponomarev), were published.

The Catholic Church immediately started from the inter-church level. At the initiative of the Catholic hierarchy, an ecumenical prayer for getting rid of the coronavirus was organized, which was attended not only by Christians (Roman and Greek Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans and Baptists), but also by Muslims and Jews.

Special attention was paid to the safe organization of Easter services, which are associated with a special concentration of believers. Following the order of Metropolitan Tadevuš Kandrusievič, other bishops issued similar documents.

Religious denominations of the Republic of Belarus followed different strategies in relation to the epidemic, while most of them did not fundamentally refuse to hold festive services with the mass participation of believers. Nevertheless, everyone tried to limit the excessive crowding of people.

The Catholic Metropolitan Tadevuš Kandrusievič called “to refrain from visiting churches and to participate in festive services on broadcast” [1]. The press secretary of the Catholic Church in Belarus, Priest Yuriy Sanko, made an even more urgent appeal to the faithful: “Stay at home today, all of you, so that everyone can come to the church later!” He also reminded that Catholics can use the dispensation (exemption) from the obligation to attend services issued by Catholic priests in connection with the epidemic.

Orthodox Metropolitan Pavel also made a similar appeal to refrain from visiting churches on Easter days.

Protestants and other confessions, due to their autonomy, demonstrated approaches of varying degrees of rigor. If, for example, the Minsk church of HVE “Grace” limited itself to appeals to those who had symptoms of the disease and the elderly to stay at home, participating in the service, if possible, online, the Minsk church of the Evangelical Christian Baptists “Bethlehem” transferred all the services online completely.

It should be noted that the pandemic made even conservative churches significantly increase their presence on the Internet, especially in terms of live broadcasts of services. In addition, the Orthodox Church held unusual actions in the form of “the cross flight” of clergymen with icons, first by helicopter around Minsk, and then by plane along the borders of the whole country. These events were led by the Exarch Metropolitan Pavel himself.

Unfortunately, the measures announced by the management were not strictly implemented everywhere. Even in the comparatively disciplined Catholic Church, there were cases of frivolity in some parishes regarding sanitary safety.

But the most difficult problems arose in the Orthodox Church. This is due, firstly, to the greater ritual tradition of the denomination, where any innovations in the order of worship are painfully perceived, and secondly, to the much more contact nature of some rites, especially communion, which traditionally takes place using a common spoon.

Among the Belarusian parishes and monasteries, the most advanced flagship of the COVID-dissidence was the St. Elizabeth Monastery in Minsk, mostly represented by its confessor and de facto leader, Archpriest Andrei Lemeshonok. He consistently and steadily rejected all sanitary measures, completely ignoring the instructions of the Synod and Metropolitan Pavel, even despite warnings for such disobedience on the part of the latter. Subsequently, an infection spread in the monastery, which was carefully hidden until the last moment. When it was discovered, and the monastery was closed for quarantine, then all this was presented as “the machinations of the enemies”.

The St. Elizabethan Monastery was in the center of attention only because of the openness of its position. Many parishes and monasteries in one way or another also ignored sanitary and preventive measures, only doing it in silence. Suffice it to say that the measures provided for were practically not implemented even in the Minsk Cathedral, in which Metropolitan Pavel himself was the rector. It seems that the loud statements and instructions were taken not so much for execution, but for a show of concession to society and loyalty to the authorities.

As it became clear later, the situation with the coronavirus infection in the religious sphere was largely a harbinger of the trends that were fully felt in connection with the elections and protests. Even then, the authorities showed a much cooler and more distrustful attitude towards the Catholic Church. Thus, the Minister of Health V. Karanik refused the request to send one of the responsible persons for consultations at the meeting of representatives of the main confessions of Belarus initiated by the Catholic Church. At the same time, Deputy Minister Y. Bogdan honored with her presence a much smaller meeting of the leadership of the Minsk diocese of the BOC.

In the Orthodox Church, distrust of the leadership and the heterogeneity of positions among the parishioners and clergy became evident, which later fully manifested itself in connection with the election and protests.

Churches in election and protests

Widespread falsifications, facts of illegal detentions and intimidation were recorded at the stage of the election campaign. The Church reflection on these phenomena resulted in two initiatives from below: on the part of the Catholics – the public campaign “A Catholic does not falsify” [2], on the part of the Orthodox – the distribution of the poster “The Orthodox are against: falsifications, humiliation of the individual, pressure on the individual” [3], which was signed by a number of priests and employees of church structures. And here there was already a cardinal separation between the majority of active believers and the Orthodox hierarchy, some representatives of which, such as Archbishop Gury of Navahrudak and Slonim (Apalko), took an openly pro-government position.

At the second stage, the question arose about the attitude of the church to mass violence and beatings of citizens. Here, too, there was a difference not only between confessions, but also between different hierarchs of the same denomination.

Catholic Metropolitan Tadevuš Kandrusievič and Orthodox Metropolitan Pavel spoke neutrally. More sharply and definitely from the Catholics was the Viciebsk bishop Oleg Butkevich [4], and from the Orthodox – Hrodna Archbishop Artemiy (Kishchenko) [5]. Among the Protestants, Viacheslav Goncharenko, the pastor of the New Life Church, stood out with his bright sermons against lies and violence.

Initially, Metropolitan Pavel after Patriarch Kirill hurried to congratulate Alexander Lukashenko on his election victory, which many Orthodox Christians took with indignation. But soon there was a different trend in his attitude to the events in the country. He eventually supported a rejected prayer service with a procession against violence initiated by a group of Orthodox laypeople. During the conversation with the believers, he even asked for forgiveness for the rush to congratulate Alexander Lukashenko.

From this initiative, a regular tradition of joint Christian prayer at the town hall was subsequently formed, which was one of the evidences of cooperation and rapprochement of ordinary believers of different faiths. In the same spirit, the Christian action “Chain of Repentance” unfolded, when in Minsk believers of different denominations lined up in a prayer chain from Kurapaty to the pre-trial detention center at Okrescina.

At the official level, a common Prayer for Belarus was held with the participation of representatives of different faiths and religions. The creation of the “Christian Vision” [6] group in the Coordination Council, as well as the joint website “The Church and the Political Crisis in Belarus” [7] can be called the fruits of private cooperation between Christians of different denominations.

Although the position of Metropolitan Pavel was not very stable, and he sometimes returned to a firm pro-government track, even to the point of indirectly condemning the sermon of Archbishop Artemiy, he still called on the authorities to “stop the violence” [8], showed sympathy for the victims of violence, visiting them in hospitals. This was enough for the head of the regime to make loud statements to the clergy: he called on them to “settle down and mind their own business” and warned that “the state will not look at this with indifference.” [9] As a result, the heads of the two main denominations were effectively expelled and replaced by other personalities. At the head of the BOC, Bishop Veniamin (Tupeko), who had been already completely loyal to the regime, was appointed as the head of the BOC, who, hiding behind general words about the “neutrality” of the church, began to directly support the authorities. At the same time, other apologists of the regime from Orthodoxy became more active: Archbishop Guriy (Apalko) and Abbess Gavriila (Glukhova).

At the same time, some priests, including Orthodox ones, continued to speak out against lies and violence, often quoting the Bible during protest actions. For expressing their Christian position, the priests were also subjected to repression by the regime. Among them are Orthodox priest Vladimir Drobyshevsky, Catholic priest Vyacheslav Barok, Christian activists Artiom Tkachuk and Dmitry Dashkevich.

A significant event is the summons of the Vicar General of the Catholic diocese of Minsk-Mahilioŭ, Bishop Yuri Kosobutsky, and the chairman of the Synodic Information Department of the BOC, Archpriest Sergiy Lepin to the prosecutor’s office. Their private notes about the destruction of the memorial to Roman Bondarenko, who died at the hands of the punishers, were regarded as “public statements leading to a confrontation in society.” [10]

Conclusion

As a result of the new challenges of 2020, the initiative of believers increased and their participation in politics and other social processes intensified. The formation of an independent worldview, independent of the attitudes of the hierarchy, was especially evident in the Orthodox Church, where there was a radical divergence between the pro-government hierarchy and the majority of active conscious believers who sympathized with the protests.

Against this background, mutual understanding and solidarity of believers of different Christian denominations increased dramatically, which opens up new opportunities for cooperation based on a Christian worldview, regardless of confessional affiliation.

Links

  1. “Арцыбіскуп Кандрусевіч просіць вернікаў заставацца дома.” Catholic.By, 03 Apr. 2020 www.catholic.by
  2. «“Католик не фальсифицирует”. Верующие выступают против фальсификации выборов.» Флагшток, 14 July 2020 www.flagshtok.info
  3. Дмитрий Павлюкевич. Facebook, 08 Aug. 2020 www.facebook.com
  4. “Зварот Біскупа Віцебскага Алега Буткевіча з нагоды масавых пратэстаў у краіне.” CatholicNews.by, 12 Aug. 2020 www.catholicnews.by
  5. «Обращение архиепископа Гродненского и Волковысского Артемия к клиру и пастве Гродненской епархии.» Гродненская епархия БПЦ, 14 Aug. 2020 www.orthos.org
  6. “Хрысціянская візія” www.telegram.org
  7. “Царква і палітычны крызіс у Беларусі” www.belarus2020.churchby.info
  8. «Митрополит Павел призвал Лукашенко сделать всё, чтобы остановить насилие.» Tut.by, 14 Aug. 2020 www.news.tut.by
  9. «“Займитесь своим делом!” Лукашенко высказался о позиции священнослужителей по ситуации в стране.» Tut.by, 22 Aug. 2020 www.news.tut.by
  10. «Генеральная прокуратура отреагировала на публичные заявления священнослужителей, ведущие к конфронтации в обществе.» Генеральная прокуратура Республики Беларусь, 18 Nov. 2020 www.telegram.org

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