MINELRES: IWPR Belarus Reporting Service No.01: Minority Faiths Fear Rise of Orthodoxy

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Welcome to the first issue of IWPR's Belarus Reporting Service 
This free weekly news analysis service, published in both English and
Russian, forms the most visible part of a new training project, which
seeks to encourage and disseminate objective, reliable and professional
reporting on the ground. The project marks our return to Belarus where
we worked to monitor media coverage of the parliamentary elections in
October 2000.

Crucially, we are seeking the participation of journalists working in
both the state and non-state press. Similarly, we encourage editors of
all print media to freely republish the  stories we publish. In helping
to depoliticise the media, we hope to encourage improved relations
between journalists and public figures based on professionalism and
mutual respect. Increased journalistic access throughout political and
public life, will in the long term, improve the accuracy and objectivity
of information disseminated to the Belarusian public.

As we publish this first issue, so next week will see our first two-day
practical training seminar being held in Minsk. We are indebted to the
Human Rights Policy Department of the British Foreign & Commonwealth
Office for its support. The project is currently scheduled to run until
May - but will be continued beyond if new funding is secured.

PLEASE NOTE: All subscribers to our various free news services will
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automatically. Thereafter, only readers who have directly subscribed to
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To comment on the service or find our more about our work in Belarus,
contact Natasha Chernyshova, Belarus Project Coordinator at
natasha@iwpr.net or visit www.iwpr.net


President Lukashenko tightens the reins of power as his popularity
Yuri Potemkin reports from Minsk.

Opposition accuse Lukashenko of trying to create a "velvet dictatorship"
in the heart of Europe. 
Dmitri Drigailo reports from Minsk.

Human rights and press freedom appear to be off the agenda for the new
mission in Minsk. 
Andrei Osmolovsky reports from Minsk.

Lukashenko's courtship of church threatens to undermine religious
Natalia Mukha reports from Minsk.

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Lukashenko's courtship of church threatens to undermine religious

By Natalia Mukha in Minsk

President Alexander Lukashenko's speech to mark Orthodox Christmas last
week suggested he is considering a wholesale union of church and state.

Minority faiths fear they will become the first victims of their
leader's desire to empower the Russian Orthodox Church and, in so doing,
cement cultural ties between Minsk and Moscow.

At a church service celebrating the Orthodox Christmas on January 7,
Lukashenko told the nation, "My soul cannot comprehend the fact that in
our country, the church is somehow separated from the state. The church
plays a colossal role - it is a consolidating element in our society".

A new law on religion, passed in November last year, certainly
guarantees the Orthodox church a central role in Belarusian society.
However, smaller sects and denominations in the country suspect that far
from being a consolidating force, the increasingly powerful clergy will
repress and persecute them for their beliefs.

In his New Year's speech, Lukashenko stressed that there is no religious
conflict in Belarus. But his assurance is unlikely to convince the
parishioners of Semkov Gorodok in western Belarus who follow the
Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox People's Church, BAOPC.

The church, which considers itself independent of Russian Orthodoxy and
was denied the right to register in Belarus, is forced to hold its
services in the open air and in private homes to escape fines or arrest
by the police.

The autocephalous sect is not alone in feeling threatened. The law on
religion passed in November 2002 attracted scorn from a number of
denominations that felt they would be marginalised, if not criminalised,
by the primacy accorded to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Human rights organisations added to the chorus of criticism. Tatiana
Protko, chairperson of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, warns that the
new law will "inevitably lead to the instigation of religious hostility
and intolerance".

November's legislation demands that all religious organisations be
compulsorily re-registered every two years. All unregistered religious
activity is deemed illegal. Moreover, all faith groups with fewer than
twenty members have been outlawed, as have most forms of religious
observance in private homes.

A preamble to the new law has proven particularly controversial. While
emphasising the pre-eminence of the Russian Orthodox Church, it
recognises four other mainstream faiths in Belarus - Catholicism,
Lutherism, Judaism and Islam.

Smaller denominations left out complain that the state will only defend
the interests of the officially sanctioned faiths.

The state prosecutor, Stanislav Novikov, played down the role of the
preamble, maintaining that it carried "no legal force" and was "just a
foreword to the law". He added that the five mainstream faiths were
listed because of their long history in Belarus.

President Lukashenko enthused about the new law in his January 7
address, saying it provided "a legal basis" for "closer cooperation
between the church and state".

"The law notes that Orthodoxy is an integral part of the historic,
cultural and state traditions of our country," he said.

The Orthodox church arrived in Belarus over a thousand years ago via
Russia, and its Belarusian wing follows the leadership of the patriarch
in Moscow. Although religion was consigned to a minor role while Belarus
was part of the Soviet Union, and many Belarusians still consider
themselves atheist, Orthodoxy has become the dominant faith in the
country in the years after independence.

Of all the leaders of post-Soviet republics, President Lukashenko, who
has run Belarus since 1994, has been the keenest to maintain tight
political and cultural ties with Moscow. As the most influential of the
country's few allies, Russia is responsible for propping up the
Belarusian economy - and Lukashenko's presidency - with cheap gas and

Observers believe Lukashenko may be drawing together the Belarusian
Orthodox church and the state in order to have his country's strongest
cultural link with Russia enshrined in domestic policy.

Although it is a branch of Orthodox Christianity, the autocephalous
church does not recognise the authority of the patriarch in Moscow. It
is perhaps inevitable that it should find itself on a collision course
with authorities that are trying to foster Russian Orthodoxy in Belarus.

The state's hostility to the autocephalous church reached a climax last
summer in the village of Pogranichnyi, near the Polish border. One of
its priests, Jan Spasiuk, decided to build a church on land that was
designated for his house. On the eve of the church's inauguration, armed
police surrounded the village and bulldozers moved in to demolish the
illegal construction. Since then, church- goers have congregated in

The autocephalous church emphasises nationalist elements in worship and
holds its services in the Belarusian language rather than in Russian.
This is more than a challenge to the authority of Russian Orthodoxy; the
church's nationalist focus is subtly at odds with Lukashenko's campaign
to present Russians and Belarusians as brothers-in-arms.

Levon Akalovich, an archpriest in the autocephalous church, told IWPR,
"Today in the churches, people pray for the Russian, not for the
Belarusian state. Belarusians have their own traditions, their own
statehood and we want an appropriate church to defend these."

Despite repeated attempts, the autocephalous church has not been able to
register with the state, which regards its charter as unconstitutional
and illegal. Akalovich maintains that his church is " in no way opposed
to the constitution".

The church draws most of its followers and funding from diaspora
communities in the US and Canada, although it claims to have its origins
in 19th century Belarus.

The church's western connections have led the authorities to allege that
it is an alien faith. Vladimir Lamenko, deputy chairperson of the State
Committee for Religions and Nationalities, maintained,  "The truly
patriotic forces have always lived here, with the people. That is why
the state supports the Belarusian exarchate of the Russian Orthodox

Father Nikolai, a secretary of the Belarusian exarchate, goes one step
further, suggesting that the autocephalous church is an agent of western
powers, seeking to drive a schism through Russian Orthodoxy. He cites
former US cold-war policy adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who apparently
named the Orthodox church as the West's principal enemy in the early

"Today the aim is to divide the church. Orthodoxy unites people, it does
not divide them," said Father Nikolai.

Lamenko admits the state favours certain faiths because of their history
in Belarus, but does not discriminate against others. He sums this up in
sublimely Orwellian fashion,  "Here all denominations are equal, but
this does not mean they are equivalent."

Natalia Mukha is a journalism student at the Belarusian State University
in Minsk

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ISSN: 1477-7932 Copyright (c) 2003 The Institute for War & Peace