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Struggle over Identity

Nelly Bekus

Part IV. Arguments and Paradoxes of Weak Belarusian Identity

Chapter 16. Lack of Religious Basis for National Unity

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1In Belarus, traditionally, Eastern Orthodoxy is identified—either subconsciously or explicitly—as the Russian faith, while Catholicism is seen as the Polish creed. During the first years of Belarusian independence, these old clichés inherited from history were reanimated. This means that religion does not seem to be a uniting factor in Belarus: Belarusians have been divided between different branches of Christianity, which serve to link Belarusians with either Russian or Polish religious community. Statistics reveal that the majority of Belarusians belong to Orthodoxy, followed by Catholicism; there is also a considerable number of Protestants as well as members of other religious groups. The Belarusian state equally recognizes both Orthodox and Catholic main religious holidays. In 2006 there were 1,349 Orthodox parishes registered in the country, 932 Pro test ant parishes, and 438 Roman Catholic ones. At the same time one should admit that the new epoch of independence has brought changes in the politics of faith. Bela rusian authorities closely cooperate with the Orthodox Church, and refer to the Orthodox faith as genuine Belarusian tradition. Kazimir Świątek, the first cardinal in post-communist Belarus and the head of the Belarusian Catholic Church favored introduction of the Belarusian language into religious service, and prohibited the display of Polish national symbols in Belarus’s Catholic churches. From the perspective of nation-building a problem remained with the Catholic clergymen of Polish origin who did not separate the concepts Catholicism and Polishness. At the same time the official policy of Vatican was aimed at an independent development of Belarus. Radio Vatican has been broadcasting in Belarusian language since the 1950s. Pope John Paul II had used the Belarusian language and demonstrated his support of Belarusianness. The policy of the Catholic Church con ducted in the 1990s resulted in accepting the Belarusian language as a working language in Belarusian Catholicism. Books and magazines are published in Belarusian, and basic religious texts are translated into Belarusian, as well as prayers and songs. The Catholic clergy most often use the Belarusian language. The Orthodox clergy use the Church Slavonic language in religious services, but they use Russian in all the other communications.

  • 1 Leonid Lych writes: “Attempts to revive Uniate Church in present time should get support among the (...)

2The attempts to revive the Greek Catholic Church were connected with the spiritual search of Belarusian intelligentsia and with the idea of the national church where the divine service and the cult could be united with the national symbols, traditions and the language. Ideas of the Uniate Church experienced a revival. The political scene saw such pro-Uniate politicians, as, for example, the leader of the Belarusian Popular Front Zia non Pazniak. Nevertheless, the idea pronounced by some authors about the necessity to welcome a development of the Uniate Church as a national Belarusian religion1 had a small chance to be realized in practice, as the “Uniates” comprise a small group. There were only thirteen Uniate parishes registered in Belarus in 2006; they all had few members and were often adjoined to the Catholic Church.

3The Soviet policy conducted in Belarus was aimed at the deindigenization of the population, when after graduating from colleges and universities young people were sent to “alien lands:” from the east of the country to the west, and vice versa. On the one hand, this was conducive to loss of contacts with the birthplace and its traditions, including religion. On the other hand, it contributed to confusion of traditions, to erasing and replacing them with common Soviet social rituals and practices.

  • 2 A. V. Danilov and V. A. Martinovich., “Osobennosti konfessionalnoi struktury Respubliki Belarus’,” (...)
  • 3 V. V. Serdiuk, “Rimo-katoliki Belarusi. 1991–2001,” in Poskommunisticheskaia Belarus’ v protsesse (...)

4The obvious domination of Orthodoxy in the post-communist Belarusian society shown by statistics is in practice dissolved by Catholicism also because of the latter’s cultural and educational activities conducted by the Catholic Church. Research proves that in the western part of the country, where the majority of Catholics reside, the religious aspect is stronger expressed and more often used as a guideline in social life.2 Partially it can be explained by the fact that the ban on religion and the forced propaganda of atheism here continued just forty, not seventy years as in eastern Belarus. The counteraction to pro-Polish Catholicism comes from the local clergy and from believers. This milieu actively shapes the idea of Belarusian patriotism of Catholics and works toward the revival of national culture. “One can observe a high level of patriotism among young people, with their intention “to civilize Belarus and join Europe.” In their opinion, “the Orthodox Church, with its pro-Russianness […] just prevents it.”3

5All together these factors hamper active instrumentalization of the religion in nationalist discourses, and at the same time point out Belarusian religious tolerance and the tradition of peaceful coexistence of different religious communities on the Belarusian lands as one more appearance of the genuine Belarusian Europeanness.


1 Leonid Lych writes: “Attempts to revive Uniate Church in present time should get support among the self-conscious Belarusians, because Orthodox Church and Catholicism are practically not involved in the process of our national cultural resurgence” (L. Lych, “Religia i natsiianalnaia sviadomast’ belarusau,” Belarusika Albaruthenica no. 2 (1992), 68.

2 A. V. Danilov and V. A. Martinovich., “Osobennosti konfessionalnoi struktury Respubliki Belarus’,” in Poskommunisticheskaia Belarus’ v protsesse religioznykh transformatsii, ed. A. V. Danilov (Minsk: Adukatsia i vykhavanne, 2002), 7.

3 V. V. Serdiuk, “Rimo-katoliki Belarusi. 1991–2001,” in Poskommunisticheskaia Belarus’ v protsesse religioznykh transformatsii, 31.

© Central European University Press, 2010

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