Staunton, September 4 – Statistics about religious affiliation in Belarus as opposed to the number of religious institutions are not easy to come by, Dmitry Gorevoy says. Few surveys have been conducted by the Lukashenka regime because of the sensitivity of this issue. But the best estimates are that Roman Catholics form 15 percent of the population of Belarus.
That is an extremely large percentage of a country many people dismiss as part of the Russian Orthodox world and in fact four percentage points greater than the number of faithful loyal to Rome in Ukraine, a community that routinely attracts far more attention, the Current Times journalist says (currenttime.tv/a/belarus-church-protests/30819580.html).
The size of this religious minority -- Orthodoxy is the predominant faith – helps to explain why its leaders have been far more sympathetic to the protesters against the Lukashenka dictatorship and why Minsk decided to block the return to the country of the Roman Catholic leader of that country.
If Roman Catholic clergy are largely on the side of the protesters, the Orthodox clergy, including some in the hierarchy, are very much divided. Some follow the caesaro-papist tradition and back the state, but ever more Orthodox priests are lining up with the people against the powers that be.
Moscow and Minsk are worried about both faiths, about the possibility that Roman Catholicism will lead Belarus in the direction of western-oriented Poland or that the Orthodox in Belarus will demand autocephaly. The latter appears to be a bigger fear and helps to explain Moscow’s decision to replace its church leader in Minsk with another.
But so far, neither Moscow nor Minsk has focused on what may be a bigger threat, the possibility that Belarusians now registered as Orthodox may decide for political reasons to convert to Roman Catholicism, something that could change the cultural and political face of that country far more profoundly than even Orthodox autocephaly, Gorevoy suggests.
Most of the talk about the possibility of Belarusian autocephaly in fact comes not from Belarus where it is seldom mentioned, he says, but from Ukraine where religious leaders and experts say Belarus should follow the Ukrainian path (ukrinform.ru/rubric-society/3087760-cerkov-belarusi-predstartovaa-pauza-avtokefalii.html, facebook.com/epifaniy/posts/2674239692791583 and t.me/cyrilhovorun/125).
But many Belarusians now in the Orthodox church are looking to change to Roman Catholicism because of the contrasting positions of church leaders regarding the falsification of elections by Lukashenka. “In social networks,” Gorevoy says, “some believers are beginning to ask about how to exit the Orthodox church and accept Catholicism.”
Minsk theologian Natalya Vasilyevich says that “part of the people who now identify with Orthodoxy are not satisfied with the silence” of the Orthodox hierarchy about the protests. She says that many have stayed Orthodox this long only for practical considerations: Orthodoxy allows divorces while Catholicism doesn’t.
There are two reasons, she suggests, why this shift in allegiance could become large. On the one hand, the former head of the Orthodox church in Belarus, Metropolitan Filaret, promoted cooperation between the Orthodox and Catholics, even dispatching Orthodox students to study at Catholic universities in Rome.
And on the other, Vasilyevich adds, there is a long tradition of such shifts in which people decide whether to be Orthodox or Catholic on the basis of politics rather than viewing moves from one to the other and even back again as primarily matters of faith. If many Orthodox now make that choice, it will gut the Orthodox church in Belarus, with or without autocephaly.
Gorevoy and Vasilyevich do not raise the issue, but one possibility in the future is that Moscow may be forced to decide that an autocephalous Orthodox church in Belarus would be more likely to prevent such a shift to Catholicism and thus be more in Moscow’s interests than continuing to have a Moscow-controlled but ever smaller Orthodox one there.