Staunton, August 25 – One of the most often objected to qualities of the previous Russian Orthodox exarch in Minsk was that he lacked connections to Belarus. Metropolitan Pavel, 68, was an ethnic Russian and, despite Belarusian law prohibiting this, was the leader of a denomination there but not a citizen of the republic.
On the one hand, that left him tone deaf to many of the concerns of the Belarusian people; and on the other, because Pavel symbolized the imperial dimension of the Moscow Patriarchate, his presence helped spark talk about the possibility of autocephaly for the Belarusian church, talk that only increased after Ukraine gained that status.
Now, in response to the problems Pavel’s uncertain approach to the demonstrations have caused and to ever more frequent calls for autocephaly, the Moscow Patriarchate has replaced him with Bishop Veniamin (Tupeko), 51, a native of Brest Oblast and an ethnic Belarusian (ng.ru/faith/2020-08-25/1_7946_religion.html).
Symbolically, this change means a lot, although even more than Pavel, Veniamin is associated with the idea, pushed by the Kremlin, that Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians are one people not three nations. It may be enough to quiet talk of autocephaly for a time, but it may not end it, especially if Veniamin does not take steps to acquire Belarusian citizenship.
She suggests that Veniamin has the additional virtue from Moscow’s perspective of being someone who will be able to find a common language with Alyaksandr Lukashenka because of his engineering education background and his asceticism. As a result, she argues he will fit in well in Belarus.
Other Belarusian observers aren’t so sure. Aleksandr Shramko, a former ROC priest, says that in his view, the new appointment is “not the best news” (svoboda.org/a/30803747.html). The church in Belarus has “two symbolic wings,” he says, those like Grodno Bishop Artemy who support the protests and others who support Lukashenka.
“Metropolitan Pavel was somewhere in between these two. As far as Veniamin is concerned,” Shramko continues, “he is a very conservative individual.” He is likely to be more concerned with maintaining order within the church and less interested in having the church take a political position.
Others, like Moscow religious affairs specialist Nikolay Mitrokhin, agree, and argue that Veniamin will work to strengthen the church rather than involve it in politics. But to the extent that is true, his moves will work for Lukashenka rather than for the Belarusian people in the streets – and that may soon dispel any optimism about his appointment.