Oct 3, 2020
This op-ed was originally published in The Hill, on October 2, 2020.
By USCIRF Commissioners Gary Bauer and Nury Turkel
Late last month, Belarusian officials blocked Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz from reentering the country, in an unprecedented move that President Alexander Lukashenko ordered because the senior cleric “mixed church and politics.”
The Lukashenko regime views religious organizations—which are among the few remaining autonomous institutions in Belarus—as a particular threat.
President Lukashenko refers to himself as an ‘Orthodox Communist’ and makes no secret of his atheism. He has mostly refrained from overt actions against religious groups, relying instead on bureaucratic obstruction and administrative harassment. Now, amid the current unrest, there are worrying signs that the Lukashenko government is actively undermining the independence of religious groups.
For example, on August 25, the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (ROC-MP) relieved Metropolitan Pavel, the head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), of his duties after he visited protestors in the hospital and spoke out against regime violence. In recent years, the Kremlin has used the ROC to exert its influence in neighboring Ukraine. The removal of Metropolitan Pavel is a worrying sign it is now doing so in Belarus.
Unlike in Ukraine, popular attitudes in Belarus are generally positive toward Russia, and the avowed atheism of the Lukashenko regime only lends to the perception of BOC autonomy. This could change significantly, depending on ROC-MP policy toward the current unrest. In the immediate aftermath of the disputed election—which outside observers and internal opposition consider blatantly falsified—ROC-MP leader Patriarch Kirill congratulated Lukashenko on his victory, and spoke of the need for continued cooperation between Belarus and Russia, as well as the ‘patriotic education’ of younger generations.
The BOC is not typically a bulwark of the regime—despite its relatively privileged position in Belarus, where it is formally acknowledged as an essential part of the national heritage and allowed special influence in spheres like education and healthcare.
In the past, in fact, the BOC has joined forces with Catholics and Protestants to demand a review of Belarus’ 2002 Religion Law, which mandates official registration for religious communities, restricts religious activity to state-approved locations, and punishes violations with steep fines and imprisonment. Although the BOC hierarchy was initially reticent to intervene in the current unrest, individual clergy have participated prominently. Metropolitan Pavel’s rapid removal as head of the church after criticizing the regime sends a clear signal that Lukashenko and his supporters will not tolerate any such political involvement.
The Catholic Church actively supported opposition to the regime even prior to the elections. It has spoken out against regime violence, organized protests, and protected protestors within its facilities since the beginning of the current unrest. Catholicism has a long history in Western Belarus, which was once part of Poland. Although the church remains popular with ethnic Poles and Lithuanians, the majority of Catholics in the country are ethnically Belarusian and represent the second largest religious confession, after Orthodox Christianity.
Nevertheless, the relative lack of training facilities means that nearly half of the Catholic clergy are foreign citizens—mostly from Poland. The government has made a concerted effort to diminish Catholic leadership for years by making it difficult for foreign priests to obtain residence and even ejecting long-serving clerics from the country. The recent denial of reentry to Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, a Belarusian citizen, represents an alarming escalation. On September 14, the Church revealed that Belarusian authorities had annulled the Archbishop’s passport.
Combined with these actions against BOC and Catholic clergy, reports have emerged of police beating cross-shaped bruises on the backs of protestors or forcing detainees to pray during torture. These actions represent an outright assault by the Lukashenko regime on religious freedom in Belarus. Religious freedom encompasses, among other things, freedoms of expression, assembly, and conscience. While it is troubling, it is not surprising that the Belarusian struggle for democracy has a religious dimension.
On September 14, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators introduced a resolution condemning the crackdown in Belarus and calling for sanctions. Although the resolution documents key moments in Lukashenko’s crack down on civil society, it makes no reference of his assault on religious freedom.
It is essential that U.S. officials cooperate with regional allies and religious leaders to present a united front of unwavering support for freedom of religion or belief in Belarus. In addition, the United States and its allies should join representatives of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian Churches in condemning Lukashenko’s recent actions, and urge Russian Orthodox leadership to refrain from using their church to exert political influence in Belarus.