The Pandemic May Prompt an Orthodox Church Reshuffle in Belarus
The response by Belarus’s two main Orthodox denominations to the coronavirus outbreak has been uncoordinated, inconsistent, and slow, attracting increased scrutiny. The overall picture is one of confusion too. President Lukashenko maintains that Belarus does not have any deaths from covid-19 alone. The health ministry has reported just over 33,000 cases of the novel coronavirus, with around 200 deaths, although these statistics are likely under-reported. No official lockdown is in place.
The Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) has become one of the most significant cornerstones of national identity and also plays a political role. In 2004 the then head of the church, Metropolitan Filaret, urged citizens to support Alexander Lukashenko’s (internationally condemned) referendum on extending his presidential term. In 2015 senior BOC representatives held a large ceremony to pray for Lukashenko ahead of the 2015 presidential elections. A 2016 survey indicated that the majority of the population (83%) identify as Orthodox Christians. This does not necessarily translate into action — less than 12% of respondents attend church weekly. The peak of the covid-19 outbreak coincided with one of the holiest weeks in the Orthodox calendar, Easter on April 19. Lukashenko personally attended an Easter service and criticized other countries for failing to allow their citizens to do the same, even as many other Orthodox communities moved their services online.
This largely mirrors Russia, where individual Orthodox dioceses were left to decide for themselves whether to hold services over Easter. Some churches in Moscow agreed to sterilize icons after they were kissed, but congregants in Belarus and Russia were pictured taking communion from unsterilized spoons and touching icons in crowded churches. Echoing statements made by senior religious officials, some congregants have maintained that faith is sufficient to protect against the virus. Other clerics, such as Alexander Ageikin from Moscow’s Epiphany Cathedral, refused to close churches at all, maintaining that concerns were overstated; he, along with several other clerics over the past few weeks, have died of the virus.
That said, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has (somewhat belatedly) acknowledged the increase in coronavirus infections and the importance of preventative measures. The church has also criticized other clergymen for failing to comply with instructions to limit the spread of the disease. The leader of the BOC, Metropolitan Pavel, who is originally from Russia, in early May seemed to fall in line with this view, criticizing clerics failing to comply with health ministry guidelines and discouraging people from visiting churches if they were ill. But he supported keeping churches open for Easter and placed no restrictions on church-going for healthy people.
One reason for this stance could be the Soviet-era repression of religious life, when many churches were closed, a link publicly made by some Belarusian clerics. Another is that keeping places of worship open, as well as promoting conspiracy theories about the genesis of the virus, allows the church authorities to present themselves as a center of religious freedom and the keeper of a distinctly Slavic moral code, the antithesis of the unscrupulous West.
But the virus has also laid bare ecclesiological fractures. Despite Metropolitan Pavel’s statements, other BOC dioceses have not fallen in line. The ROC-controlled Convent of Saint Elizabeth in Minsk went into lockdown only in early May, after many nuns became infected. Andrey Lemeshonok, its senior priest, published videos denying the severity of the virus, suggesting the nuns were suffering from pneumonia. In an open letter to Patriarch Kirill in late April, several hundred ROC parishioners criticized the church for its scattergun approach to the virus; some maintained that their priests had ignored Kirill’s demands for people to stay at home, others claimed that priests endorsed the idea that congregants could not become infected in church, and complained about clerical dissemination of conspiracy theories.
Then in late April Kirill temporarily suspended Andrey Kuraev, a well-known priest and blogger with often-divergent views from the mainstream Church, for criticizing Ageikin following his death from covid-19. Kuraev will face an ecclesiastical court. The move could be a way of curbing other liberal critics, and the ROC and BOC may use parishes’ handling of the pandemic as a pretext for removing other troublesome priests. These reshuffles will be particularly important ahead of August presidential elections, where Lukashenko is likely to win yet another consecutive term. The BOC’s support for the election campaign and affirmation of a Belarusian (and) Orthodox national identity will help attract voters to the polls, in an attempt to offer the result at least a veneer of legitimacy.
Emily Ferris is a Research Fellow in the International Security Studies department at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, specializing in Russian domestic and foreign policies.
27 May 2020