Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been carrying on a rapprochement with the Vatican and has even been pushing for Pope Francis to visit Minsk (Interfax, May 23, August 19). Such efforts, along with discussions in the Belarusian media about the possibility of having the Belarusian Orthodox Church become autocephalous, are intended to “balance” the enormous “spiritual influence” the Russian government has in his country. Indeed, according to Belarusian experts, Lukashenka fears that Moscow may use this kind of influence against Belarus in the same way it did against Ukraine.
Religious issues in Belarus have rarely attracted much notice in the past. Denis Davnikevich, the Minsk correspondent for Moscow’s Gazeta newspaper, attributes this to the fact that Belarusians are “absolutely tolerant” and consider it “completely normal” that within one family “the husband may be a Catholic, the wife—Orthodox, and the children—members of Evangelical communities.” This reality reflects the long history of the joint operation of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches in Belarus (Gazeta.ru, September 5).
But in the last seven or eight years, religion has become more politically important, both domestically and internationally. Domestically, the 20–30 percent of the Belarusian population who are Roman Catholic have attracted Lukashenka’s attention because they are, on average, better off than the rest of the citizenry, are less enamored of Minsk’s Eurasian orientation, and represent a possible bridge to Europe. This group is, therefore, becoming ever more important to Lukashenka as he seeks to balance Belarus’s ties with Russia and Europe.
In 2009, Lukashenka traveled to Vatican City to meet with Pope Benedict XVI and publicly invited the pontiff to visit Minsk. The Belarusian president continued to reiterate this invitation in his subsequent meetings with the Roman Catholic pope, including Benedict’s successor—Francis I. However, during this period, Belarusian authorities carried out a series of crackdowns on local Catholic leaders. In particular, prosecutors brought espionage charges against a priest in 2013 (Gazeta.ru, September 14, 2013). Moreover, the Belarusian media would occasionally suggest that Catholic priests were “agents of influence” for Poland. Thus, nothing appeared likely to come out of Lukashenka’s invitations.
Yet, in recent months, the Belarusian leader seemed to adopt a more positive tone toward Roman Catholicism in general and the Vatican in particular. In May 2016, for example, he called the Vatican “one of Belarus’s best friends in Europe.” And in August, the Holy See delivered its official response: the newly arrived papal nuncio in Minsk said publicly that Pope Francis “will find the time and opportunity for a visit,” although he could not say just when this might happen (Nasha Niva, August 19).
One of the reasons that the Vatican has not yet moved on this issue, Maksim Gatasak, the head of the Belarusian Christian information portal Krynitsa.org, says, is that the pope will not come without the agreement of the dominant church in Belarus—that is, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The ROC “is under the control of Moscow,” Gatsak pointed out, “and Moscow has not given its agreement.” Until it does, no visit is likely (Gazeta.ru, September 5).
Russia’s resistance on this point has had an unwelcome consequence for the Moscow Patriarchate, which heads the ROC: it has revived calls in Belarus to make the local Belarusian Orthodox Church autocephalous—that is, in control of its own affairs rather than being subordinate to Moscow. The Lukashenka regime appears to have become more interested in this initiative for three other reasons as well:
First, the Belarusian government would like to gain control over this social organization, just as it has achieved control over so many others. Second, Minsk was incredibly offended in December 2013, when Moscow imposed as a new head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church someone who was not even a Belarusian citizen and whose appointment was not cleared in advance with the Belarusian authorities or even Belarusian religious leaders. And third, in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Lukashenka has become alarmed at the organization of special militarized camps for Belarusian young people both inside Belarus and in the Russian Federation. These camps promote not Belarusian values but the notion that those who pass through these camps should be prepared to fight for an expansion of “the Russian world.” All these things, Gatsak says, infuriate and even spark fears among officials in Minsk (Gazeta.ru, September 5).
Lukashenka himself raised the issue of autocephaly during a 2010 visit to Universal Patriarch Varfolomey (Bartholomew I of Constantinople). And Belarusian officials have stepped up their calls for moves in that direction especially following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, given the way Moscow used Orthodox congregations in Crimea and Donbas to aid the Russian advance. Indeed, these officials have taken some heart from the fact that two years ago, most Belarusian Orthodox hierarchs declared they favored making their church “autonomous” from the Moscow Patriarchate. And as Gatsak points out, “autocephaly is the next step,” one perhaps likely because such an arrangement would give bishops in Belarus both more money and more power. Currently, they have to send most of their collections to Moscow and obey Moscow’s orders (Gazeta.ru, September 5).
But other specialists on religious affairs in Belarus dismiss any possibility of autocephaly as “a fantasy.” Indeed, according to Natalya Vasilevich, such an outcome could occur only if the situation deteriorated to the point that other problems would be “much more immediate than the resolution of the canonical status of the Belarusian Orthodox Church” (Gazeta.ru, September 5).