The Church in Belarusian Protest: an interview about transnational solidarity and transformative potential8 min read

 In Civil Society, Eastern Europe, Interview
On 26 August 2020 riot police trapped protestors and journalists in the Red Church on Independence Square in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Archbishop Kondrusiewicz of the Catholic Church in Belarus explicitly condemned these actions and called for an official investigation. It then became clear that both the Catholic and the Orthodox Church are no longer unpolitical actors within the current uprising in Belarus. 

At the same time, the Christian Church is an institution that transcends national boundaries and rather connects people through faith. Accordingly, we see solidarity with the Belarusian people from Christian communities all over the world. One example of this rising solidarity is the devotion circle of the Berlin Gethsemane Church. Here, Ina Rumiantseva, who was born in Berlin and married to a Belarusian, commemorates the political prisoners in Belarus and provides information about current developments in Belarus. I had the chance to talk with her about the current and future role of the Church.

You have been holding a prayer gathering for the people in Belarus for over 20 weeks now. What is that about?

We have been holding these gatherings regularly since August 25. And through that, our group has become the most active one in Germany. Similar prayer groups had already existed before the Berlin wall came down and were part of the protests of Eastern German opposition activists. Four years ago, this format was revived in support of political prisoners in Turkey after the imprisonment of one of the community’s members, Peter Steudtner. Since then, it has been held daily and focuses on political prisoners worldwide. Every Tuesday the prayer is dedicated specifically to political prisoners in Belarus, where I lead the informational part.

And what else is happening in churches in Berlin and Germany?

In addition to our engagement, other communities became active during the last weeks. For example, we are in touch with the Nordkirche [North Church]. They are a community of churches located in Northern Germany between the North and the Baltic Sea. Pastor Kai Feller from Hamburg is one of the most active church representatives.  

In the course of the dramatic events surrounding the hunger strike of the political prisoner Igor Losik, the bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg has taken a strong stand. He and also the bishop for foreign affairs of the Protestant Church in Germany were very passionate and outspoken in this matter. I definitely see an increased commitment by the Church.

So comparing this to the Church in Belarus, what position does the Church in Belarus hold and what are they demanding? 

I think we need to distinguish between the leaders of the churches and the individual members of the parishes. Uncounted individuals of all denominations have positioned themselves strongly in the summer. And many of them were arrested. 

The leaders of the Church have rather acted with some hesitation, whereby the Orthodox Church has been more hesitant than the Catholic Church. But it did become clear in the summer that Minsk archbishop Kondrusiewicz positioned himself pro-opposition. Eventually, he was stopped at the border when he wanted to return from a trip to Poland. It was obvious that this was connected to his statements towards the protests. Because of that, he became somewhat of a role model for the whole movement. So, when he did re-enter the country it was overwhelming to see the people welcoming him. Of course, his words must be understood in an ecclesiastical context but still, they are very noticeable.

Not long ago, at the end of January, Kondrusiewicz left his post. We know that someone pro-reform had been considered as his successor. Unfortunately, the archbishop who was appointed instead is oriented less towards reform. This shows us that church leaders are in fact, still more interested in good relations with the current regime and that they want to stay in the back.

It seems that this is also the position of the Vatican. They try to stay out of the political dialogue. Of course, they refer to human rights but at the same time, they want to be neutral. Obviously, that is a difficult undertaking. 

Concerning the different positions, are regional differences relevant and what role does the Protestant Church have in this? 

The Protestant Church doesn’t play a large role. After all, it is the Catholic Church that is more strongly rooted in the West. Also, they are more oriented towards Poland and the Polish Catholic Church. That has been so traditionally, and we can also see that now. 

So, why is it that German churches have become active? Is that rather a result of the initiatives of individuals or is it a top-down process?

In fact, in the beginning, there were rather active individuals. We, the prayer group, are also only loosely connected to the parish. We receive very positive feedback from the parish Church Council. 

What is the reaction from the parish to your initiatives? 

I have noticed that we have changing visitors every week and also regular visitors who come here specifically to hear about Belarus. In sum, there might be 40 people who come here regularly. They come here because of the information I provide them. Information so timely and personal it cannot be found in the German media. There is really a big interest. 

For me, it is very moving to see people that I don’t know and who don’t have a personal connection to Belarus, lighting candles and praying for Belarus.

Does the respective denomination and faith play a big role for these visitors?

Our prayer group is not bound to any specific denomination. Atheists come here as well. Everything is very open. Some of the Belarusians are of Orthodox faith so we also included Orthodox prayer rituals into our format.

I do think it is really the combination of getting information but at the same time, the prayer and this sort of calming down, lighting a candle – that is important to the people. If it was not, they would simply read the news. Usually, members of the Belarusian diaspora join us here. 

This communal gathering is helping not only the Belarusians but also the German folks.  

Is there cooperation between active people in the churches and other civil society initiatives like the association Razam [Together] for the Belarusian diaspora in Germany? 

I am myself a member of this association and most of the Belarusians who come here are members too.

Many of the Germans who come here are politically interested and active anyway. That is helpful because they share the information we provide very broadly. Also, our prayer texts are being shared all over Germany.

We cooperate, for example with many initiatives that support people affected by the consequences of Chernobyl. They have more than 600 working groups in Germany and they actively wait for our information and distribute them further.

Also, there is a high demand for us to stream the prayer gathering online. We already tried that last week and will hopefully continue with it. 

In what ways do you cooperate with churches in Belarus? Is there a common strategy?

There is the interdenominational working group Chrystsiyanskaja Viziya [Christian Vision] connected to the Coordination Council of the Belarusian opposition. They also organized a prayer with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in the Berlin Dome in December. We are not so much involved in it but we are in touch. I exchange information and ideas with them regularly. 

To what extent can this cooperation between the German and the Belarusian Church, as well as with German civil society be a success?

Working together is really rewarding. For me, it was a surprise to see that so much is already happening within church initiatives in Germany and Belarus. They are especially active with information politics. I often refer to the information I get out of this circle during the devotions.

The working group, Christian Vision, together with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, also sent a letter to the pope. It was sent in November but has not been answered so far. But still, there were many other initiatives. They led, among other things, to the fact that bishop Kondrusiewicz was able to come back to Belarus. 

We don’t always know about all activities, but we do see the fruits they bear. I would like to see us even more connected and more cooperation. In 1989, here in Berlin and in this very church, the church played an active role in society and transforming politics. It would be nice if the Church could take on such a strong role again. 

That leads me to my last question. In August in an article on tut.by, Belarusian analyst Artyom Schraibman suggested the church might be the only actor in Belarus that would be able to mediate between the regime and protecting society. He explained that the church was the only institution both, regime and society still trust. What do you think about that?

I have a hard time with that. I also hear very different opinions about that, especially since the Orthodox Church leaders are keeping a low profile. Traditionally they have also been close to the regime. Also, the Catholic Church is acting more carefully at the moment. We saw that in the succession of the archbishop. 

Both the Orthodox and the Catholic Church are indeed trusted by society. Today I read about a very interesting survey from Chatham House. It is fascinating because it shows which institutions are most trusted by the Belarusians. Independent media was ranked first, right after that ranks the Orthodox Church. 45% of the people trust it mostly or completely, the Catholic Church is also trusted mostly or completely by 42%. I think that is remarkable. It is quite impressive that the churches rank so highly. Of course, that would be an argument for an active and transformative role of the church. 

This interview was conducted in German and translated by the author. 

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