Belarusian Orthodox Church in the discussions of national identity of Belarus is commonly referred as Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus. On the one hand, it reflects the reality of administrative subordination of the Orthodox Church in Belarus to Moscow Patriarchate as well as reproduction of cultural and ecclesial patterns of the church in Russia as normative ones. On the other hand, both in administrative and cultural sense Belarusian orthodoxy is connected to historically specific multi-dimensional situation on the border of so called canonical territory of the Russian Church, influenced by specific features of the Belarusian political regime and low level of civil society development.
According to inter-Orthodox consensus and Statute of the Russian Orthodox Church1, Belarus is a canonical territory of this church, that means, that there is no other canonical jurisdictions in Belarus rather than Moscow Patriarchate, and few alternative communities claiming independence from this ecclesial structure are not recognized by the Orthodox Church in general. The status of Exarchate is granted to the Orthodox Church in Belarus, which presupposes comparatively limited autonomy with all decisions shall be approved by the general Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, by which also all the local bishops are appointed.
Belarusian Orthodox Church in 2012 consisted from 1594 communities2 united in 11 dioceses, but there is no registered membership and internal church or external state statistics of Orthodox church membership, therefore the number of Orthodox believers or those who identify themselves with the orthodoxy is not known. Data on religious belonging and behavior vary depending on methodology of sociological research, and commonly number of Orthodox believers constitute from 403 to 804 per cent of the population with significantly weaker connection to the religious community and less regular church attendance in comparison with Roman Catholics and Evangelicals5.
Belarusian government prioritizes Orthodox church among other religions in public discourse and legislation, however, this privileged position is balanced by strict state control of its activities. On the level of institutionalized state-church relationship, special agreements between the Orthodox church and central and local governmental authorities are concluded, the very fact of which makes symbolic status of the Belarusian Orthodox Church higher than of other religions in Belarus none of which has similar official relationship with the Belarusian state authorities. These agreements, which are numerous and often without clear structure and mechanisms of implementation, are often identified both by state and church authorities as evidence of special state support to the Orthodox church, however, despite of agreements, in reality the Orthodox church in Belarus has less freedom of activities in comparison with neighboring countries, even predominantly Catholic Lithuania and Poland, where Orthodox religion as part of a school curriculum, which were restituted by their property, have Orthodox chaplains in army or receive funds from national budget.
This approach of Belarusian state authorities towards the Orthodox church which believed to be specially supported can be illustrated by statement of Belarusian President Lukashenka who claimed that, “in our turn, we have the right to expect assistance from the clergy’s side”6, and expectation of the state authorities towards the Orthodox church are at least to maintain loyalty, which is not always the case as there are more and more examples when representatives of BOC dare to oppose state authorities. However, Belarusian sociologist Olga Breskaya argues that “Church failed to become autonomous actor of public life during last decades of Belarusian independence”7, what, according to her is a result of paternalistic politics from the governmental side as well as of absence of strong religious communities inside the church which could be able to lobby their interests in the public sphere.
Among the topics which are raised by the Orthodox NGOes and hierarchy in the public sphere the following are predominant: state registration numbers (individual number of persons); demographic decline, abortions, general pro-life agenda, reproductive technologies (in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, etc.), public morality, family values, juvenal justice; these topics basically limit the domain of church’s social inclusion, however, there are Orthodox circles of semi-official character which are also concerned with death penalty, political prisoners issue, human rights, domestic violence, ecology, overcoming of communistic past, and even national revival of Belarus, but such initiatives rarely enjoy support from the official hierarchy.
One of special examples is Hrodna diocese in the Western part of Belarus, on the border with Padlasie region in Poland with strong and active presence of Orthodox church, often connected to Belarusian national identity. This link helps to Hrodna diocese to maintain other ecclesial and cultural patterns different from Russian post-Soviet ones. In contrast, in Eastern dioceses Russian Orthodox influence is much more significant. It depends not only on geographical position of the local diocese or cultural self-colonization due to normative status of the Moscow as a centre of religious life. This dependence is also determined by general Russification and Sovetization of Belarusian people, stereotypes and ignorance about local history, personal approach and values of the local bishop and local leaders, who promote different position and prioritize different things in the pastoral policies. It must be admitted, that in practice great influence from Russia comes not only on official level of promotion ideology formulated by higher establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church, but also on anti-hierarchical level in connection with popular movements of special cult of late Russian Tzar Nikolay II, which, however, still has a marginal character and involves active but limited number of people.
Centralizing tendency in the Russian Orthodox Church started by Patriarch Kirill (Gundyaev) of Moscow elected in 2009 in case of Belarus is more significant due to recent weakness of Metropolitan Philaret (Vakhromeyev) of Minsk connected to his age and health problems. Metropolitan Philaret as a person of great authority in the Orthodox world has been governing Orthodox Church in Belarus since end of 1970s, and through his authority united Belarusian Orthodox Church in local entity on the national level; while in the recent years each diocese and bishop without presence of the strong leader on the national level started to be more oriented to other centers, first of all, Moscow, which lead to decentralization of the Orthodox Church in Belarus locally while centralization in general, however, it gave more autonomy to bishops of alternative orientation, as already mentioned example of Hrodna diocese.
The main centers of influence of the Belarusian Orthodox Church have external character. On the one hand, that’s ecclesial centre in Moscow, which promotes idealogical concept of the “Russian World” as spiritual, cultural and political entity, including not only ecclesial dimension of the Orthodox Church in Belarus, but of Belarusian people in general. On the other hand, that’s political centre in Minsk, which seeks from the Orthodox Church loyalty towards Belarusian regime. This two centers have mechanisms of pressure. However, there are several circles in the Belarusian Orthodox Church which try to formulate their own agenda not only in accordance with two centers, but also alternative to them. Belarusian Orthodox Church’s position was more clear in previous years being outspoken by its leader Metropolitan Philaret, while in the present days there are no clear power and decision-making centre.