Speaker says what’s happening in Belarus is happening around the world
by Ellen Smith and Kathy Melvin | Special to Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Belarus was a key focus of the recent virtual BURM Network (Belarus, Ukraine, Russia Mission Network) during its virtual annual meeting.
In August 2020, Belarus held a presidential election, but it did not go smoothly. In the months leading up to the election, there were many peaceful protests featuring protests of multiple developments, including leading candidates who had been removed from the ballot by the Central Election Committee (CEC). One fled to Russia; another, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, was imprisoned. In his place, his wife, Sviatlana Tsikanouskaya, added her name to the ballot.
The CEC declared Aliaksandar Lukashenka (whose name is often rendered Alexander Lukashenko) elected by an 80% majority, but few accepted these results. Sviatlana Tsikanouskaya claimed victory with at least 60% of the vote and called on Lukashenka to start negotiations and formed the Coordination Council to facilitate the transfer of power. In the following days, the largest political protests in the history of Belarus began. The government responded with violence.
Natallia Vasilevich, an Orthodox theologian from Minsk, was one of two keynote speakers on the current situation in Belarus. She is living in Germany while finishing her doctoral degree. Trained in political science and law, she works to combine her previous education with Orthodox theology to develop contemporary political theology. She is actively involved in the ecumenical movement, part of WSCF (World Student Christian Federation), editor in chief of the Belarusian theological journal Zbożża and moderator of the Christian Vision group of the Coordination Council of the Belarusian Democratic Movement.
Vasilevich said that since the election, Belarusian society has been in a state of deep political and social crisis. The democratic movement had begun in the spring of 2020, ahead of the election, through a solidarity campaign with medical workers over the pandemic and the neglect by authorities to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Despite unprecedented participation in the peaceful protests, Vasilevich said there was only a weak institutional infrastructure for democracy. For democratic changes to occur, she said, democratic institutions are necessary, whether they’re political parties or nongovernmental organizations. There was a void in leadership after the election because many leaders were imprisoned or forced into exile. In the months since, persecution has increased.
Currently there are more than 800 political prisoners. Many others face the threat of criminal prosecution. Registration for many NGOs has been withdrawn. Independent media outlets have been silenced and external news media organizations have been blocked. The space for legal and open expression of democratic values is rapidly shrinking.
Vasilevich said anyone can be prosecuted for anything at any time. Most lawyers have lost their licenses, so there is no possibility for defense. Those in Belarus who participate in the democratic movement must do it anonymously, so the ranks are depleted.
Churches and religious communities are under threat. Religious communities are remembering Soviet times when some Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant leaders supported the regime to be able to hold worship services. Today, clergy and laity alike play a significant role in formulating the Christian response to violence and injustice.
As a way of suppressing it, the authoritarian regime has refused dialogue with the democratic movement. Many church leaders have felt forced to maintain a loyalty to the regime, prioritizing peace over justice, “which results in peace without justice,” said Vasilevich.
“Even when church leaders react in certain situation, there is a lack of expertise to understand manipulations or to produce fast and well-prepared responses,” she said. “The state uses ‘traditional family values’ to control the church and society, and in the case of Orthodox leaders, it threatens them with autocephaly (separation from the Russian Orthodox Church). Claiming that the democratic movement will lead to an autocephalous church, the regime promises to protect the church from schism.”
Vasilevich said the state uses the phrase “traditional family values” against the democratic movement, arguing that democracy in Belarus will mean “same-sex marriage and western decadence,” an approach that could produce a moral panic among Christians. This discredits the democratic movement, making it very difficult to gain trust among believers.
“On the other hand,” she said, “those involved in the democratic movement look at the church and their support of the regime and don’t trust the institution to make any positive contributions to society. The gap between the church and the democratic movement is very difficult to overcome.”
Christian Vision is an ecumenical group that includes Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant priests, theologians and activists, many of whom have been forced into exile. This group works to equip pro-democratic church leaders who have theological expertise to be able to communicate their alternative position to the church leadership supporting the regime. Their written materials show there are significant numbers in their churches who support democratic values.
Christian Vision also works to monitor, document and make visible all incidents of persecution and to support its victims. The group speaks to church leadership about justice, peace, the integrity of creation, human rights and human dignity, but also works on a grassroots level, connecting democratic ideas to theological discourse through the interpretation of sacred texts. It argues for freedom of religion and open discourse between government and church on social issues.
“They do not want the democratic movement to become a second Lukashenka, making the church an instrument of their politics and enclosing them in a private space,” she said. “They seek to equip the democratic movement to communicate more effectively with churches and church communities.”
Vasilevich told the network that what is happening in Belarus is happening globally to one degree or another. She noted that U.S. fundamentalists export “traditional family values” to vulnerable communities, and it is used against the LGBTQIA+ community and other marginalized groups.
“Authoritarian regimes globally are not the internal issue” of only one nation, she said, “like COVID, which existed only in China first, could not stay in China. I think there is a world pandemic of authoritarianism, a world pandemic of xenophobia, a world pandemic of conspiracy theories, which grow.”
“Even if you [speak out] in your own societies, your own communities,” she said, “it already helps the world atmosphere be more healthy.”
Ellen Smith is a U.S.-based mission co-worker serving Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Poland. Congregations and mid councils of the PC(USA) are asked to pray for Belarus and for the world.
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Categories: World Mission
Tags: Alexander Lukashenko, Aliaksandar Lukashenka, august 2020 election, belarus, belarus ukraine russia mission network, burm network, christian vision, Coordination Council of the Belarusian Democratic Movement, covid-19, ellen smith, Natallia Vasilevich, russian orthodox church, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Sviatlana Tsikanouskaya
Ministries: World Mission