Staunton, August 29 – In what may be an irony of fate, Maksim Gatsak says, the Orthodox Church in Belarus could gain autocephalous, that is, independent status, even sooner than its counterpart in Ukraine, precisely because such a move may come more quickly in an authoritarian state than in a more democratic one.
But if the Orthodox Church in Belarus, now part of and subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate, does achieve such status, that will have the effect not only of making Ukrainian Orthodox autocephaly more likely but also making Belarus more independent from the Kremlin and its “Russian world.”
At the same time, Gatsak says, the role that the Belarusian state would play in promoting such autocephaly, a role that would involve increasing still further the power of the government over religious organizations, could in the end have the effect of leading to the loss by such a church of that independent status were there to be regime change in Minsk
In a commentary on the religious affairs website, Krynica.info, Gatsak argues that a major factor holding back the achievement of autocephaly in Ukraine is precisely its “democratic regime with a more or less developed division of powers, regional self-administration,” and the existence of competitive elections (krynica.info/ru/2016/08/25/avtokefaliya-pri-avtoritarizme/).
As a result, Kyiv doesn’t have the power to “force the various Orthodox Churches to unity via the establishment of a single national Church that would be recognized by the Orthodox world.” Instead, it is likely to continue for some time to have three independent Orthodox Churches – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
The first and third are not in union with world Orthodoxy, and the second is subordinate to Moscow, a situation which creates problems for Ukrainians and Ukraine, Gatsak says. “But even under conditions of the conflict with Russia, the Kyiv authorities are not capable of ignoring democratic procedures” and pushing toward unity.
Belarus would appear to have another advantage over Ukraine in that it is far from clear what would be the organizational basis of a united autocephalous Orthodox church there, while in Belarus, there is no question that it would consist in the first instance of the hierarchs of the existing Orthodox Church in Belarus now subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate.
Indeed, the expert on church affairs says, the way in which Minsk has dealt with the alternative Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church since the 1990s shows that the country’s political regime is not prepared to tolerate the emergence of any second Orthodox denomination in the country.
It is likely, however, Gatsak continues, that there are people in the Belarusian regime who would like to have an autocephalous church, “to weaken Russian control over events in Belarus, to reduce the ideological influence of Moscow and also to increase its own control and ideological influence.”
If Lukashenka and his regime decide to pursue autocephaly, it would not be difficult to find some hierarchs within the Orthodox church in Belarus, assemble a synod or assembly of the Belarusian church and declare themselves to be autocephalous. The Russian church would not like that, but it probably couldn’t block it without severe damage to itself.
According to Gatsak, “the establishment of an autocephalous church independent from Moscow would very likely receive the support of many opposition organizations and mass media outlets.” And it would not be opposed by rank and file Belarusians most of whom, the analyst says, feel themselves far removed from such church questions.
And such “an integral and united Belarusian Orthodox church would have a simpler time than would Ukraine of obtaining recognition from the Orthodox world and from Constantinople in particular.”
At the same time, pro-Russian organizations, including “’the Cossacks’ and military patriotic clubs” together with the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia would oppose such a move and might use it as an occasion to dispatch to Belarus “’little green men’” in a reprise of what it did in Crimea.
In sum, Gatsak says, “the existence of an authoritarian regime in Belarus to a significant degree makes the possibility of creating and gaining recognition for an autocephalous Belarusian Orthodox Church, but the active and directing role of the powers that be in this issue could lead to major negative consequences.”