Belarus, The Catholic Church in
BELARUS, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
The Republic of Belarus is located in eastern Europe, and is bound on the north by Lithuania and Latvia, on the east by Russia, on the south by Ukraine and on the west by Poland. Although landlocked, it benefits from a strong agricultural region containing fertile plains, while other areas are marshy due to the runoff from several rivers. Natural resources include petroleum, peat moss and natural gas, while agricultural products consist of grains, potatoes, vegetables, sugar beets and flax. Strong livestock and dairy industries also operate in the region. Much of the country is forested.
Known previously as Belorussia (Byelorussia) or White Russia, Belarus was part of Lithuania and then Poland, before that country's conquest by Russian troops
under Catherine the Great in the late 18th century. A constituent republic of the USSR as the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, the region gained its independence in 1991, following the fall of Moscow's Supreme Soviet. An authoritarian regime, elected during the country's first free elections in 1994, imposed increasing restrictions on individual and political liberty throughout the region, and by 2000 the Belarusian government was viewed internationally with increasing concern due to its growing intolerance to opposition and Western influences. Manufactured goods such as agricultural equipment, clothing and chemicals provided the basis of the region's economy, although the lack of raw materials remained problematic, forcing Belarus into an economic partnership with Russia by the late 1990s.
History. Inhabited by eastern Slavic tribes by the fifth century, the region came under the rule of Kiev from the ninth century, until that city fell to the Mongol invaders in the 1200s. Byzantine Christianity entered the region through the Vikings c. 1000, and had become highly influential by the 16th century. Lithuanian nobles took control of Belorussia, and it eventually became a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, along with the Ukranian cities of Galicia and Kiev. During the split of the Church between Kiev and Moscow in 1459 that created the Russian Orthodox Church, Belorussia retained allegiance with Kiev and, under Kiev, Constantinople. When Lithuania merged with Poland in 1569, Poland gained Belorussia as well. During the partition of Poland in the late 18th century, Belorussia became part of the growing Russian empire under Catherine the Great and became subject to the incursions of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1596 the Union of brest, made between the Eastern Orthodox leaders of Belorussia and Ukraine, allowed these churches to retain their autonomy and local customs in exchange for their recognition of the authority of Rome, thus preserving them from the increasing domination of the Moscow patriarchate. From 1569 to 1680 the Belorussian Orthodox Church was transferred from Kiev to the Polish patriarchate, but as the power of the Eastern Orthodox metropolitans dwindled in the late 1600s, that leadership was usurped by the Moscow patriarchate, which thereafter claimed full authority over all Orthodox churches in Belorussia and Ukraine. By the time that it was banned in 1839 by the Russian government, the Orthodox Church counted 75 percent of Belarussians among its faithful adherents.
During the next century the Russian Orthodox Church controlled Belorussia, leaving Byzantine Catholics to worship in underground communities. A small Roman Catholic minority also existed in the country, composed mainly of Polish immigrants who had migrated to the region after the partitioning of the 18th century and were allowed to worship openly. All this would change following World War I.
In July of 1917, shortly after the Russian Revolution, a Bolshevik-led committee representing Belorussian nationalists proclaimed the region an independent republic, although its independence was short-lived. By February of 1918 the Communist support had pulled out troops in advance of incoming German/Polish forces, which set up a puppet government in Belorussia. The Polish-Soviet War that followed from 1918 to 1921 resulted in the Treaty of Riga, under which the western district was ceded to Poland and, in 1922, the eastern district became part of the USSR as the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. The region was reunited in 1939 when the Soviet Union occupied the western district. In 1941 Belorussia was invaded by German troops and the war-torn years that followed witnessed a massive loss of life. In addition, thousands of Jews living in the region lost their lives after being shipped to Nazi concentration camps. Minsk was liberated from German occupation on July 3, 1944.
One of the primary goals of the new communist-controlled government was to undermine the traditional social and political order, which meant undermining the Russian Orthodox Church. Their first tact was to fragment the Church through the encouragement of breakaway sects and the introduction of Protestantism. Encouraged to increase its profile, the formerly outlawed Belorussian Orthodox Church proclaimed its independence from Moscow in July of 1922 as the Belorussian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. The Roman Catholic Church, meanwhile, adapted to the changing administration by going through a reorganization: in 1926 a papal commission authorized the formation of nine administrative regions, Mogilev-Minsk among them, each headed by an apostolic administrator. Unfortunately, as the phasing in of Communism continued, the relaxed attitude of the state that had permitted such religious proliferation and reorganization was shattered by a 1929 law banning "religious propaganda", and priests and other religious found themselves targets of the state through the 1930s. The Catholic apostolic administrator was imprisoned by the Soviet government, then banished from the region. Between 1929 and 1932 most priests in the region were jailed, and the churches suppressed. In 1945 Belorussia joined the United Nations, and all ethnic Poles living in the western region, formerly part of Poland, were allowed to immigrate to their home country.
In 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power-plant disaster shocked the world. The explosion and the resulting cover-up by the Soviet government had long-lasting repercussions for southern Belorussia, which received 70 percent of the nuclear fallout from the Ukranian-based nuclear power plant. For decades afterward, the Belorussian population experienced increased instances of cancer and other devastating disease. In 1996, a rally held in Minsk marking the tenth anniversary of the disaster turned into an anti-government march of 50,000 strong that was swiftly dispersed by local police forces. Two Eastern-rite Catholics, leaders of the march, were arrested and imprisoned, but ultimately released after a three-week hunger strike and a massive public outcry.
Break-up of USSR Creates Autonomous Church. The conflicting forces created by the break-up of the Communist system and the dissolution of the Soviet state ultimately threatened the Moscow patriarchate, which had suppressed nationalistic elements within the Soviet Orthodox sphere for many decades. In January of 1990 the bishop's council of the Russian Orthodox Church met in Moscow and decided to grant a certain measure of autonomy to the Orthodox churches in Ukraine and Belorussia. Consequently, the Belorussian Orthodox Church was made an exarchate of the Moscow patriarchate.
Following the August of 1991 coup and the fall of the Gorbachev government in Moscow, declarations of independence by Estonia, Latvia and Ukraine became a mobilizing force in Belorussia. The long-dormant stirrings of nationalism took the form of a massive general strike and the temporary suspension of the ruling Communist party. As early as July of 1990 the region declared itself a sovereign state, and the Supreme Soviet proclaimed Belarus independent on August 25, 1991. The name of the state was officially changed from the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic to the Republic of Belarus during the chaotic period that followed, as government restructuring began. In December of 1991, as the USSR dissolved, Belarus became a founding member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), headquartered in Minsk. A new constitution went into effect on March 30, 1994 that created a democratic government, granted freedom of religion and proclaimed the country's intention of being a non-nuclear, politically neutral state. Elected during the first free elections the following July, President Aleksandr Lukashyenko set about realigning his government with that of Russia in hopes of gaining economic advantages, a position that angered many, and signed an agreement with Russian president Boris Yeltsin to create an economic union between the two governments. Censorship of the media in the 1995 elections signaled the return to a strong central government in which political power was increasingly vested in the hands of Lukashyenko, who although not a communist was a totalitarian. By 2000 the region's planned market economy suffered due to a downturn in the Russian economy which provided the market for 70 percent of Belarus's goods.
Into the 21st Century. Belarus's transition from communism to democracy remained rocky in 2000, and restrictions on speech, the press and peaceful assembly were increasingly implemented despite the freedoms outlined in the 1995 constitution. The government effectively intimidated those who criticized its policies and personnel, while state ownership of most of the public presses guaranteed censorship of the media. In 1996 a referendum granted Lukashenko dictatorial powers, and three years later, by canceling the scheduled elections and altering the constitution, he retained the presidency.
Human rights abuses remained a major focus of the region's Catholic population, as they witnessed men and women who raised their voices in public opposition to the government either arrested and imprisoned, or reported missing. Even more tragic was the government's effort to divide the Orthodox faithful by supporting the Belorussian Orthodox Church (which was dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate) against the underground Belorussian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
The preservation of Slav/Orthodox culture prompted several speeches by President Lukashenko in the late 1990s that rallied the government into prohibition of many Church functions, and in 1998 he pledged that Orthodoxy would be the major religion in the country. This position was reinforced by a 1996 constitutional amendment stating that the relationship between the state and religious entities be "regulated with regard for their influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and country traditions of the Belarusian people." By refusing to register Catholic churches as legitimate, the practice of the Eastern-rite was forced underground and it was increasingly difficult for many parishes to retain ownership or even maintain church properties.
By 2000 there were 390 Roman Catholic parishes, tended by 112 diocesan and 132 religious priests. Other religious included approximately 12 brothers and 290 sisters, most of whom operated Catholic primary and secondary schools in the country and tended to the growing number of children who were tragically affected by the Chernobyl disaster. While the Roman Catholic Church benefited from tax-exempt status as a "traditional religion" under the constitution, it did not receive state subsidies for its work in the country, such subsidies being relegated exclusively to the Belorussian Orthodox Church controlled by Moscow. Under the leadership of Patriarchal Exarch Filaret, who was appointed at the creation of the Belorussian exarchate in 1989, the number of Orthodox parishes grew from fewer than 800 in 1995 to over 1,100 by 2000. Roman Catholicism remained the second largest religion, its faithful led by Cardinal Kazmierz Swiatek, archbishop of Minsk-Mogilev. Most Roman Catholics were of Polish ancestry and resided in the western part of the country. To avoid attracting the ire of the government, Swiatek refrained from involvement in internal political issues as much as possible, and encouraged the use of Belarusian rather than the Polish language in religious services. The Greek-rite Belorussian Autocephalus Orthodox Church continued to be banned by the government, and became increasingly associated with the Belarusian Popular Front, an opposition party.
Problems stemming from a lack of clergy were exacerbated by foreign religious—mostly from Poland—being denied work permits by the government. In addition, priests were arrested and deported with increasing regularity. 1997 saw a priest in Nyazvizh removed from his parish after his refusal to allow the government to turn his church's crypt into a museum, while in March of 2000 much-loved Polish priest Zbigniew Karoljak was arrested during a Mass in Brest for violation of visa regulations, having been denied authority to work in Belarus since 1995. Karoljak, who had worked in Belarus since 1990, was deported in June of 2000 over the objections of Archbishop Swiatek. Concurrent with his permission for the Church to open a seminary to train new priests, Lukashenko announced in 1999 that he would deny visa renewals in the future for the 130 foreign clergy then at work in the country, as well as enforce a prohibition on new foreign religious from entering. The president also publicly blamed the Roman Catholic Church's amicable relationship with the Church in neighboring Poland for his own failed efforts at improving diplomatic relations with Poland. Added to concerns resulting from the oppression of the Catholic Church were increasing worries about the rise of anti-Semitism in Belarus, as articles blaming Jews for the nation's economic woes appeared with increasing frequency in several government-controlled newspapers.
Bibliography: n. vakar, Belorussia: The Making of a Nation. p. mojzes, Religious Liberty in Eastern Europe and the USSR: Before and After the Great Transformation (Boulder, CO 1992). i. lubanchko, Belorussia under Soviet Rule, 1917-1957. j. zaprudnik, Belarus: At a Crossroads in History. s. p. ramet, Nihil Obstat: Religion, Politics, and Social Change in East-Central Europe and Russia (Durham, NC 1998).