Staunton, September 23 – All churches in Belarus should have clergies drawn from the Belarusian nation rather than foreigners unless they are “exceptionally devoted to the Belarusian people and state,” Alyaksandr Lukashenka says, a call that affects first of all for Roman Catholics but ultimately for the Belarusian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate as well.
Neither the Kremlin nor the Moscow Patriarchate will have any problems with Lukashenka’s call for “Belarusianizing” the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church and those of other denominations. Indeed, the Muscovites are likely to welcome this as consistent with Vladimir Putin’s desire to cut off Russia and its Belarusian ally from outside influences.
But both Russian institutions are certain to be concerned that Lukashenka’s statement will be read by the parish priests of the Orthodox Church in Belarus, most of whom are in fact already Belarusian, as an indication that the Minsk leader is taking their side against the hierarchy which consists largely of Russian citizens imposed on their church by Moscow.
The lower Belarusian clergy not only has supported the idea of autocephaly for their national church, but many of them are clearly annoyed at the way in which the new Russian leader they have Metropolitan Pavel has taken over or even broken up many of the church institutions they played a major role in building in the 1990s.
In a commentary today on the Portal-Credo religious affairs portal, Natalya Vasilyevich, an expert on religion in Belarus, points to rising tensions between the Belarusian priesthood and the overwhelmingly Russian hierarchy in the Belarusian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (portal-credo.ru/site/?act=comment&id=2169).
These tensions arose immediately after Pavel’s appointment, one that many Belarusians view as illegal; and they have only grown as the new metropolitan has put his own, mostly Russian churchmen, in key positions that had been occupied by Belarusians who were part of the church’s rebirth under Metropolitan Filaret in the 1990s and early 2000s, she says.
They have been especially exacerbated by Pavel’s closure of some of the educational centers that the Belarusian church had opened including the publishing house of the Belarusian exarchate. Moreover, the Russian metropolitan dismissed from the exarchate council most of the Belarusians and put in Russians instead. And he has begun to insert Russian priests in the larger Orthodox churches in Belarus.
Vasilyevich observes that “of course, Lukashenka can make use of the general dissatisfaction on the part of ‘the old elites’ toward the new ‘foreign’ leadership of the Belarusian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate” to try to force Metropolitan Pavel to be more deferential.
But for Moscow, pressure in this area is even more sensitive than pressure on oil and trade; and consequently, what may seem to many as a minor matter of church administration in fact has the potential to become a major cause of conflict between not just between the churches but between the two governments.