Staunton, October 9 – Belarus is the largest Orthodox country in the world which does not have its own church, and it needs autocephaly like that which the Ukrainian Orthodox recently received if the country is to be truly independence and not subject to inappropriate Russian influence, Archbishop Svyatoslav of Novogrudsk and North America says.
“The percent of Belarusians who are believers may be less than half, but all the same, the majority of the people are attached to the church historically;” the head of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church in the emigration but banned in Belarus itself says (belsat.eu/ru/news/glava-belorusskoj-avtokefalii-za-belorusskogo-prezidenta-nikto-ne-molitsya/).
The Belarusian Orthodox today have “neither autonomy nor autocephaly.” Instead, they are run by an exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate which decides on all appointments from the head down through the bishops and priests without reference to the voice of Belarusian believers or the Belarusian state.
A Belarusian Orthodox Church in control of its own fate exists only in the emigration, Svyatoslav says. That church emerged after World War II. It operates “but unfortunately we cannot have close ties in Belarus because in Belarus itself out Belarusian autocephalous church is still prohibited.” It isn’t even registered although that is its constitutional right.
“But our historic church is in Belarus because we came from the Kyiv-Lithuanian metropolitan which has existed since the times of the baptism of Belarus. Later this was a metropolitanate centered in Novogrudsk since 1315 and up to the Union of Brest,” the church leader continues.
Consequently, the archbishop argues, “Orthodoxy and Christianity came to Belarus earlier than it did to present-day Russian lands and Moscow. Why has it happened that Belarusians have their own state but they do not have their own Orthodox autocephalous church?”
The answer lies in the fact that “the fate of the church is connected with the fate of the state. When the Belarusian state has flourished, so too has the church … Therefore, if we want to have a full-blown state, then naturally we must have our own Belarusian church.” The Moscow Patriarchate which controls it now want “only what is profitable to Russia.”
The upshot of this is that “in Belarus, the so-called Belarusian Orthodox Church is not in fact a Belarusian Orthodox Church. It is an exarchate,” a branch, of the Russian Orthodox Church. Evidence of this is that its priests do not come to Kuropaty while leaders of the émigré church are always there.
For the status of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church to change will require two steps. First, the Belarusian state must register it as a denomination; and second, both the state and the church itself must successfully seek recognition as a self-standing and thus autonomous church from the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate should be quite prepared to take that step because it follows from the same set of historical decisions which led to its recognition of Ukrainian autocephaly. Consequently, for the process to start, the Belarusian government must decide to be truly independent of Moscow and have an independent Orthodox Church.
Many people talk about this being possible only if there are changes in Russia, the archbishop says; but the more important place for changes as far as the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church is concerned in Belarus itself. It can act on its own when it chooses to.
At the end of his interview with the Belsat radio station, Svyatoslav says that it is most welcome to “hear the Belarusian language” in its broadcasts. “Earlier, there was Radio Liberty which carried such broadcasts but now one can only read it” as it is an Internet channel. “We can listen to a living language, see interesting people and feel ourselves at home.”