The religious touch in Belarus

By Nina Bachkatov

Since August, Belarus looks like a ‘semi-frozen’ conflict zone. The country is deeply divided, between resilient but resolute opposition, rigid and brutal authorities, competition between opponents who are in exile and those who stayed in the country. In consequence, a political vacuum had developed that is calling for foreign and national troublemakers to step in.The latest episode gave a new twist to an older story. This is the return of religion as a political element in the national fight against the authorities, but also to attract support (and money) from outsiders sharing the same religion.

Back to the Vatican

On 5 December, Svetlana Thikhanovskaya, the presidential candidate who is treated in the West as Belarus opposition leader, urged Pope Francis to speak out on the situation of her country. According to her, Belarus’ religious leaders have provided assistance to victims of police violence and, for that reasons, are facing persecutions. The Pope, she says, might engage political dialogue and secure the release of political prisoners, as well as the organisation of free and fair new presidential elections.

The call should have taken Pope Francis off his guard, and not only him. He can play his role of religious leader by pleading for peace and harmony. But Tikhanovskaya is asking him to step into a politico-religious quagmire and to appear as the head of a state the Vatican), not only of a Church, supporting secessionism. The danger is real because the ‘religious leaders’ mentioned by Tikhanovskaya from her exile in Vilnius are in fact Belarus’ Catholics, a decade’s old code word for speaking of the Polish minority that found itself in Belarus after borders’ modification. Many have received Polish passports.

Tikhanovskaya’s message echoed claims by Catholic leaders that Belarus authorities have been stepping up their persecution of the Catholic Church. On 3 December, the vicar general of the Minsk and Mogilev Archdiocese, Yuri Kasabutski, commented in a Facebook post on the 10-day jail sentence imposed on two Catholic priests in less than a week. One was accused of taking part in public disturbances by celebrating a mass (or a prayer according to sources) on the streets of Brest on 25 October. The other has been accused of publishing on his Facebook page, on 25 November, an anti-Lukashenko image. Under the title Stop to Lukashism, it features a red-and-green swastika, with the state official emblems on the background. Red and green are the colours of the official flag adopted under Lukashenko; the opposition rallies around the ‘historical’ white-red flag. The creator of the image, Vladimir Tsezler, objected to its use by the Catholic hierarchy, insisting that the image was a denunciation of “all fascism”.

2002 example

This is not the first time that religious leaders are stepping into political spheres, notably during the years of discussions before Parliament’s adoption of the 2002 law on religion that, in fact, gave the Russian Orthodox Church a dominant role on Belarus’ religion scene. It is for sure the religion of a large majority, but minorities religions protested and looked outside to defend them against ‘persecutions’. This was specially the case of the Evangelists, the Lutherans, and of course the Catholics. Undiplomatic comments by Moscow Patriarch Filaret increased the perception, including among Orthodox, that religion and geopolitics were getting too much interlinked. In this context, nationalists came back with demands for the creation of an autonomous Orthodox Church, independent from the Moscow Patriarchate, to achieve full national independence.

In today situation, the idea of Pope Francis stepping into the shoes of Pope John Paul is not only politically unsound. It also forgets that Belarus in 2020 is not Poland, nor even Western Ukraine. In Poland, Catholicism has been the core of national unity for centuries. In Western Ukraine, never fully ‘sovietised’, the majority of Greco-Catholic (Eastern liturgy, but under the authority of Rome) felt galvanised into action by the support of the Vatican that sent money and hundreds of Polish priests. It helped the regions to fight altogether Orthodoxy, atheist communism and Russian influence. In Belarus, Catholics are a tiny minority (around 6%) and associated with Polish roots.

Basic differences

Today, Belarus is a totally different story. And Pope Francis is not Pope John-Paul, as a person and a symbol. The Europeans support the opposition, but they are also attached to a laic society where religion and politics are kept separated. They are already alarmed by the conservatism of Catholicism in Poland, a member of the European Union.

The comments of Bishop Kondrasevich/Kondrusiewicz, celebrating mass in Vilnius’ cathedral, is in tune with Poland’s conservative Catholics. He speaks of the “persecution of Christians, in white gloves’, as a result of ‘divisive laws’ voted by a Belarus parliament driven by ‘materialistic atheism, that replace ideological and militant atheism”.

All that is a distraction for Belarus opposition. They certainly don’t need any pretext that could open the door to new accusation, that of feeding separatism, in a country where the Catholic question is associated with the Polish minority.

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