Truth Stumbles in the Street: Christian Democratic Activism in Belarus
“In the course of following the religious freedom situation in Belarus over the past eight years, I’ve seen the emergence of what is a linked phenomenon: Christian democratic activism,” noted Geraldine Fagan, Joseph R. Crapa Fellow, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, at a 12 December 2011 Kennan Institute event. Fagan outlined the origins, protagonists and aspirations of the Christian democratic activism movement and its aspirations for religious freedom.
In Belarus, “brave tourists may find themselves in something of a Soviet time warp,” Fagan remarked. President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus as a dictatorship for the last 17 years, with tight controls over the country’s economy, media, and security. Furthermore, the strictness of Lukashenko’s religious policy is reminiscent of religious policy during the Soviet period. Under legislation on religion adopted in 2002, all communal religious activity is subject to government approval; the main targets are active Protestant congregations. Additionally, religious activity by foreign citizens is closely regulated, and requires permission from the highest official for religious affairs. The speaker cited the approximately 160 Catholic priests and nuns serving in Belarus who are Polish citizens as targets of such legislation, noting that more than two dozen have been denied visa extensions or expelled from the country since 2005.
The Belarusian Orthodox Church has been largely unaffected by these restrictions. Its leadership appears content with the crumbs of state patronage offered by Lukashenko, who once famously proclaimed himself an “Orthodox atheist.” Other significant faiths—including Jews and Muslims—are insufficiently numerous to be affected.
“In the wake of the 2002 legislation on religion, however,” Fagan observed, “there were soon stirrings of resistance within its web of restrictions.” Despite onerous regulations on all forms of organizing and publishing, a local initiative named For Religious Freedom, comprised of individual Jews, Orthodox, and Protestants began to document mounting violations of believers’ rights. The speaker added that the Evangelical Belarus Information Center supplemented this initiative with email reports gleaned from its Protestant network across the country. The Protestant community’s efforts to document the situation culminated in a protest of over 5,000 people in Minsk in 2003.
In the spring of 2006, Lukashenko tightened the screws on civil society still further to ensure his election to a third presidential term. Fagan noted that the first jail sentences for religious activity in Belarus since the end of the Soviet Union were awarded that year. Faith-inspired protests for democracy also appeared in response to the March 2006 presidential election. The boldest such initiative thus far occurred in 2007. Despite arrests and police searches, individual Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants gathered over 50,000 signatures for a constitutional review of the 2002 religion law. Although the petition’s organizers knew from the outset that the Belarusian Constitutional Court would likely ignore their plea, they proceeded with their petition for another key reason: to challenge the Sovietized perception of the state as all-powerful. Petition leaflets told the public of the existence of inalienable, God-given rights, including religious freedom, noting that, “the state does not give us these rights, so it has no right to take them away.”
Ultimately, Fagan emphasized, the campaign for religious freedom blossomed into one for broader civic awareness. In order to even foster that movement, the speaker explained that Christian activists had to overcome two daunting obstacles. First, Belarusians have no single national Church around which to coalesce. Although commonly regarded as Orthodox, Belarus straddles Europe’s fault line between Eastern and Western Christianity. Recent centuries have seen Western- then Eastern-rite Catholicism then Orthodoxy rise and fall in popularity in what would eventually become independent Belarusian territory in 1991; however, no confession has sustained a majority among those of the current population who are active believers.
A corresponding sense of Christian solidarity is strong in Belarus, Fagan explained, noting that the expression the “Belarusian mindset says that God is one” is popular among activists. By embracing its sentiment, Belarusians of different denominations are able to co-operate with one another in pro-democracy initiatives such as the petition for religious freedom. They are thus bypassing the need for a unifying national Church.
The second obstacle that Christian democratic activists have had to overcome is passivity. With the Orthodox and Catholic Churches largely tamed, Protestants might have been expected to take the lead in campaigning. However, Belarusian Protestant churches are steeped in disdain for politics, although that disinclination is beginning to change. Fagan cited interviews with individual Protestants, who described being spurred into civic action after reaching a point where they could no longer compromise with the regime without compromising their inner selves. By stifling religious freedom, Lukashenko thus inadvertently precipitated a seismic shift in Belarusian Protestant thinking. Individual Catholic and Orthodox priests and parishioners have begun to navigate a path towards civic activism similar to the Protestant one.
While Christian democratic ideas remain an undercurrent, according to the speaker, they are nevertheless now proving strong enough to influence the mainstream Belarusian opposition, particularly the youngest generation of pro-democracy activists. In the past few years, Christian democratic activists have begun to create formal activism organizations, such as the Young Front, which is regarded as one of the main youth movements in opposition to Lukashenko. Additionally, Young Front leaders Paval Sevyarynets, a practising Orthodox Christian, and Pentecostal Alyaksei Shein left that movement in 2004 to found the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party. In seeking to inject Christian values into Belarusian politics, Fagan noted that the Party is consciously copying the original Belarusian Christian Democracy movement, founded by Catholic priests in Minsk Catholic Cathedral in May 1917.
The original Christian Democracy movement flourished in western Belarus—then part of Poland—until World War II, during which the whole of Belarusian territory fell under Soviet control. Fagan explained that the later date of Soviet annexation was crucial to the preservation of faith-based democratic aspirations in Belarus. In the Soviet East of the country, public religious life was all but annihilated in the wake of the 1917 October Revolution; in the Polish-controlled West, by contrast, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants had hundreds of functioning churches before 1939. When the Soviet system collapsed some 50 years later, freely-operating Christian communities—and the original Belarusian Christian Democracy movement—were well within living memory. “Faith-based opposition to dictatorship has thus survived the Soviet regime,” Fagan concluded, “and is now being directed against Lukashenko, who is seen as perpetuating Soviet practice.”
Fagan’s complete findings are to be published in early 2012 in the English-language journal Demokratizatsiya <www.demokratizatsiya.org>.
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute