Belarus Table of Contents
Interior of modern Orthodox church, Brest
Courtesy John Mumford
Religious procession honoring the icon of the Holy Mother of God of
Courtesy Anatol Klashchuk
Before 1917 Belorussia had 2,466 religious communities, including 1,650 Orthodox, 127 Roman Catholic, 657 Jewish, thirtytwo Protestant, and several Muslim communities. Under the communists (who were officially atheists), the activities of these communities were severely restricted. Many religious communities were destroyed and their leaders exiled or executed; the remaining communities were sometimes co-opted by the government for its own ends, as in the effort to instill patriotism during World War II.
In 1993 one Belarusian publication reported the numbers of religious communities as follows: Orthodox, 787; Roman Catholic, 305; Pentecostal, 170; Baptist, 141; Old Believer (an Orthodox sect--see Glossary), twenty-six; Seventh-Day Adventist, seventeen; Apostolic Christian, nine; Uniate, eight; New Apostolic, eight; Muslim, eight; Jewish, seven; and other, fifteen.
Although the Orthodox Church was devastated during World War II and continued to decline until the early 1980s because of government policies, it underwent a small revival with the onset of perestroika and the celebration in 1988 of the 1,000- year anniversary of Christianity in Russia. In 1990 Belorussia was designated an exarchate (see Glossary) of the Russian Orthodox Church, creating the Belarusian Orthodox Church. In the early 1990s, 60 percent of the population identified themselves as Orthodox. The church had one seminary, three convents, and one monastery. A Belarusian theological academy was to be opened in 1995.
Soviet policies toward the Roman Catholic Church were strongly influenced by the Catholics' recognition of an outside authority, the pope, as head of the church, as well as by the close historical ties of the church in Belorussia with Poland. In 1989 the five official Roman Catholic dioceses, which had existed since World War II and had been without a bishop, were reorganized into five dioceses (covering 455 parishes) and the archdiocese of Minsk and Mahilyow. In the early 1990s, figures for the Catholic population in Belarus ranged from 8 percent to 20 percent; one estimate identified 25 percent of the Catholics as ethnic Poles. The church had one seminary in Belarus.
The revival of religion in Belarus in the postcommunist era brought about a revival of the old historical conflict between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. This religious complexity is compounded by the two denominations' links to institutions outside the republic. The Belarusian Orthodox Church is headed by an ethnic Russian, Metropolitan Filaret, who heads an exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Belarus is headed by an ethnic Pole, Archbishop Kazimir Sviontak, who has close ties to the church in Poland. However, despite these ties, Archbishop Sviontak, who had been a prisoner in the Soviet camps and a pastor in Pinsk for many years, has prohibited the display of Polish national symbols in Catholic churches in Belarus.
Fledgling Belarusian religious movements are having difficulties asserting themselves within these two major religious institutions because of the historical practice of preaching in Russian in the Orthodox churches and in Polish in the Catholic churches. Attempts to introduce the Belarusian language into religious life, including the liturgy, also have not met with wide success because of the cultural predominance of Russians and Poles in their respective churches, as well as the low usage of the Belarusian language in everyday life.
To a certain extent, the 1991 declaration of Belarus's independence and the 1990 law making Belarusian the official language of the republic have generated a new attitude toward the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Some religiously uncommitted young people have turned to the Uniate Church in reaction to the resistance of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic hierarchies to accepting the Belarusian language as a medium of communication with their flock. Overall, however, national activists have had little success in trying to generate new interest in the Uniate Church.
The Uniate Church, a branch of which existed in Belarus from 1596 to 1839 and had some three-quarters of the Belarusian population as members when it was abolished, is reputed to have used Belorussian in its liturgy and pastoral work. When the church was reestablished in Belarus in the early 1990s, its adherents advertised it as a "national" church. The modest growth of the Uniate Church was accompanied by heated public debates of both a theological and a political character. Because the original allegiance of the Uniate Church was clearly to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the reestablished church is viewed by some in the Orthodox Church in Belarus with suspicion, as being a vehicle of both Warsaw and the Vatican.
Before World War II, the number of Protestants in Belarus was quite low in comparison with other Christians, but they have shown remarkable growth since then. In 1990 there were more than 350 Protestant communities in the country.
The first Jewish communities appeared in Belorussia at the end of the fourteenth century and continued to increase until the genocide of World War II. Mainly urban residents, the country's nearly 1.3 million Jews in 1914 accounted for 50 to 60 percent of the population in cities and towns. The Soviet census of 1989 counted some 142,000 Jews, or 1.1 percent of the population, many of whom have since emigrated. Although Belorussia's boundaries changed from 1914 to 1922, a significant portion of the decrease was the result of the war. However, with the new religious freedom, Jewish life in Belarus is experiencing a rebirth. In late 1992, there were nearly seventy Jewish organizations active in Belarus, half of which were republic-wide.
Muslims in Belarus are represented by small communities of ethnic Tatars. Some of these Tatars are descendants of emigrants and prisoners of war who settled here after the eleventh century.
Data as of June 1995
Belarus Table of Contents