Skip to comments.Limits of Religious Tolerance: Protestantism in Belarus
Posted on 02/04/2013 7:26:29 AM PST by Alex Murphy
Last month New Life, a Protestant Church in Minsk, celebrated its victory: the authorities allowed them to pray in the cowshed. Over the last five years, this Protestant community had to go through over 30 court hearings and their success has a bitter aftertaste.
Protestantism in Belarus undergoes a renaissance. Albeit the Protestant communities appear to be the fastest-growing, the case of the New Life proves how the authorities make their life difficult. Today restrictive legal framework hinders activities and growth of Protestant churches.
The authorities create obstacles which prevent Protestants from obtaining buildings for prayers and unfriendly attitude of the state media clearly raise the question of equality between the particular confessions before the law and freedom of confession in Belarus.
According to official figures, the number of registered Protestant communities in Belarus is 1,005. The biggest churches remain Evangelic, Pentecostals and Baptists. In comparison with 1,545 Orthodox churches and 475 Roman-Catholic parishes, number of Protestant communities grows fast.
An activist from a Protestant church in Minsk explained to Belarus Digest that the growth reflects the nature of Belarusians as the post-Soviet society, which after the communism started to recognise their spiritual needs.
Whereas, number of Protestant is substantial, the authorities and the state media refrain from calling them churches'. They usually prefer to refer to them as communities or religious organisations. Interesting, that the Belarusian word carkva, literally meaning the church, is reserved for use only for the Orthodox Church in Belarus.
Although the tradition of Protestantism in Belarus dates back to the 16th century, the authorities treat it today as non-traditional bearers of foreign political and cultural influence. Even the schoolbooks depict the Protestant confessions as sects which endanger Belarusian state and society.
The lack of proper buildings for the prayer can easily serve as evidence of inappropriate and suspicious activities of the Protestants. Without access to public media, it is almost impossible to explain wrongfulness and harmfulness of such propaganda.
To Pray but Where?
The lack of the venues to pray remains one of the top problems for Belarusian protestants. Complicated procedures, unpredictable responses from the local authorities, unachievable prices often complicate functioning of protestant churches.
The parishes are lucky if they get the right from the local authorities to rent a building at reasonable prices. It is extremely difficult to register a new church building for Protestant communities. The case of the New Life church which had to fight over its building for the prayer iilustrates this problem.
It started in 2005 when the community lost the right to use further the building, the cowshed adopted for the house for the prayer. The local authorities took a few attempts to resettle the church. In 2010, the community got the fine of 258 mln BYR for the environment pollution. A battle over the cowshed between the authorities and the New Life Church continued.
To express their support with the church, in October 2012, the leaders of other Protestant churches in Belarus petitioned the head of the Presidential Administration. However, the authorities refrained from enforcement of the decision scheduled for December.
This probably does not let the community to be sure that problems like that will not appear in the future. However, through petitioning and exposure in the international public opinion, the Protestants leaders proved they understood the power of legal instruments.
The authorities continue to reduce the number of permissions to rent land plots. Without it, official registration of buildings cannot be completed. Restrictive legislation pushes churches outside of legal boundaries.
Protestants Problems Echoed in the West
The 2002 law on religion formally introduced inequality of confessions in Belarus. It described the Orthodox Church as having a special role for the Belarusian society. Aleksandr Lukashenka constantly underlines the 'spiritual brotherhood' with Russia and the role of the Orthodox Church.
For example, during visit of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to Minsk he said: Your ambition to preserve the unity of the Russian Orthodox Church and our Slavonic brotherhood deserves high praise. This idea fully meets the hopes of the peoples of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.
The law on religions put also restrictions on the right of religious organisations to provide religious education. It confirmed the state censorship on import and distribution of religious literature which also rouse controversy.
The Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationalities Affairs of Belarus has a right to reject a registration of any church or religious organisation. The lack of registration makes further activity illegal. Obtaining the permission to build the church is also difficult. In 2010, the local authorities did not allow Protestant community from Navapolatsk to build a church building.
Foreign governments ans international advocy groups have already reacted to the deteriorating situation of the Protestants in Belarus. In a 2011 report, the US Department criticised the 2002 law as oppressive by European standards. Moreover, the report raises the issue of an extensive bureaucracy that closely supervises the religious life. The US 2011 International Religious Freedom Report was also very critical about the situation with the freedom of consciousness in Belarus.
In 2009, the European Parliament passed a resolution related to the human rights in Belarus calling to guarantee religious freedom in Belarus. But as it often happens international calls remained unheard in Minsk.
Protestants Tolerated but...
By playing with renting of prayer buildings the authorities keep the protestants far from the public sphere. Perhaps the growing number of protestants and the difficulty of controlling diverse and decentralised communities worries the authorities the most.
This attitude destroys the image of Belarus as a state of religious coexistence and tolerance, which the authorities often cherish in public speeches.
....The lack of the venues to pray remains one of the top problems for Belarusian protestants. Complicated procedures, unpredictable responses from the local authorities, unachievable prices often complicate functioning of protestant churches. The parishes are lucky if they get the right from the local authorities to rent a building at reasonable prices. It is extremely difficult to register a new church building for Protestant communities. The case of the New Life church which had to fight over its building for the prayer iilustrates this problem.
Where’s Papa on all this? You’d think the Vicar of Christ, the Holy Father would notice something like this.
Do you have his phone number? What does ATT charge for texting to Moscow?
I was once privileged to visit Belarus, as the guest of protestants. It was clear that they had to be “careful” in the practice of their faith. It was sort of an underground Church. Even the Orthodox Church was wary of the government, for it was not permissible for too much power to be with God. It was most clear that it was not comfortable to talk about the government.
We worked with a local Baptist group on the outskirts of Minsk to do humanitarian work 5 summers in a row. We can attest to the difficulty in any church activity not associated with the Russian Orthodox church. You are constantly under the microscope and ANYBODY can make an accusation and it is acted upon by the authorities as truth. This church earned a good reputation, but it was in spite of the authorities and all their efforts to disband the group, delay the work, force them into filing all kinds of paperwork over and again, etc. Even coming in as humanitarian workers does not gain any respect from the officials there. You are suspect. You are under surveillance.
We enjoyed the work. People asked who sent us, who forced us to come, why would we give up our summers to help them when we could be enjoying our time off, etc. They were very rewarding, especially working in the small village, renovating a small hospital and dental clinic, then asking and receiving permission to use the school to give an evangelical meeting to the townspeople, who ALL came out, mind you! They heard the Gospel and they went nuts over the Bibles we handed out. We bought hundreds of small cookies to pass out after the meeting, but when we announced that we had Bibles on one table and cookies on the other, the whole groups (hundreds of people) RAN for the Bibles. I had to bring the cookies around on trays to get rid of them! We pray that the Word that was planted brings forth much fruit. The following summer we took equipment for one of the small neighboring churches and medical equipment for the little hospital (I’m a nurse) and we found that some of the people we’d given Bibles to the summer before were being baptized that summer! Praise God!
The word for church would be better transliterated as "tsarkva" instead of "carkva."
You'll get no answer if you don't ping me to the question.
You can try these sites, I believe one of them does have a way to contrat the Patriarch or his office.http://www.hristianstvo.ru/ http://www.pravmir.com/ http://www.mospat.ru/en/the_patriarch/
Belarus is 48% Orthodox, 41% atheist, and 7% Catholic, with a more-or-less communist government. I’m sure Pope Benedict would appreciate more religious tolerance in Belarus, for both Protestants and Catholics.