Christian denominations in Belarus are not engaged in many joint projects and generally steer clear of politics. But the controversial reelection of “Europe’s last dictator” has united them in prayer—and in their public stance on politics.
Belarus has been embroiled in mass protests since its August 9 presidential election. For the past 26 years, the Eastern European country the size of Kansas has been led by President Alexander Lukashenko, who in 1994 won the first election since the former Soviet republic became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union three years earlier. Following his election, Lukashenko changed the constitution to eliminate term limits. No election since has been recognized as free and fair by international observers.
This year, the opposition rallied around Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran in place of her husband after he was disqualified and jailed. She promised a return to the 1994 constitution with a subsequent clean presidential poll early next year. The official results of the August 9 vote showed Lukashenko winning with 80 percent of the vote. The opposition claimed the tally was fraudulent. Mass protests swept the country of 10 million people. Protesters were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons, and stun grenades. Thousands were detained. Multiple reports of torture in detention centers hit social media.
In response, Christians are uniting in prayer at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. every day. A joint statement entitled “Prayer and Hope” was issued by evangelical leaders: Leonid Mikhovich, leader of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in Belarus; Sergey Tsvor, leader of the United Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith in Belarus; and Leonid Voronenko, leader of the charismatic Religious Association of Full Gospel Communities in Belarus.
The three called on their fellow countrymen to refrain from hatred, revenge, and bitterness. After a customary exhortation to pray for those in power, their statement calls for Christians to pray for the end of “brutality, violence, and bloodshed,” and also for victims and their families.
“Earthly hopes are not always fulfilled (Luke 24:21), but our hope is the Lord Jesus Christ; whoever believes in him will not be ashamed (1 Peter 2:6),” they wrote. “And if now there is no bright light in the clouds, then the wind will blow and clear them (Job 37:21).”
The last few days have seen largely peaceful demonstrations. The government promised to investigate police brutality. Authorities are releasing detainees, who describe harrowing beatings, days without food, and threats of rape. This past Sunday, Lukashenko spoke before 50,000 supporters in Minsk, the capital city. But his rally was dwarfed by a nearby gathering, where 200,000 protested the election outcome. On Monday morning, Lukashenko was jeered while speaking at a Minsk factory.
Looming large is Russia, Belarus’s eastern neighbor, and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. Analysts have speculated whether Putin might intervene for Lukashenko, as the opposition in Belarus would likely seek closer relations with the West if it comes to power. Putin sent Lukashenko his customary congratulations, but their relationship has been noticeably tense as of late. This tension was on public display during Victory Day celebrations in Moscow back in June when Lukashenko ostentatiously refused to stand next to Putin, to the visible chagrin of the Russian president. In a bizarre twist, Lukashenko had more than 30 Russian citizens arrested at the end of July. For days, he accused them of intending to undermine civil order in Belarus before eventually blaming it all on the Ukraine.
Lukashenko, a self-declared “Orthodox atheist,” has cultivated a relationship with the Belarusian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, a part of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is the only Orthodox church de facto permitted in Belarus. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, congratulated Lukashenko upon his election. Yet these congratulations disappeared from the website of the Moscow Patriarchate a couple of days later. Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, neither congratulated Lukashenko nor put Kirill’s congratulations on his department’s website. Metropolitan Pavel, head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, initially congratulated Lukashenko. However, after a few days, he retracted his congratulations and condemned police brutality.
Monsignor Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Belarus, refrained from congratulating Lukashenko. A couple of days after the election, he called for an end to the violence and the beginning of round-table discussions. A few days later, he published another statement, this time blaming the regime directly for inhumane treatment of the protesters. The archbishop called police brutality “a grave sin on the conscience of those who give criminal orders and commit violence.”
In an article written a month before the election, Mikhovich asserted that political involvement on the part of Christians should be limited. Jesus did not address directly the political issues of his day, wrote the Baptist leader. Paul’s involvement in the justice system, such as his assertion of Roman citizenship, was never violent. Hatred and revenge should have no place in Christian political involvement. Prayer for those in power must be a part of it, as should due reverence to them.
“‘Conquer evil with good’ (Romans 12:21). Fear lest you put your evil in the place of evil,” writes Mikhovich. “Solzhenitsyn understood the lie of all the revolutions in history: they destroy only modern carriers of evil (but also the carriers of good), while evil itself, magnified still, is inherited.”
In a second article written after the election, the Baptist leader is quite specific in his criticism of police brutality. He condemns violence and expresses hope for eventual justice from God. He writes: “It seems to us that we ourselves can carry out vengeance better, more effectively. The Lord knows how to take revenge.”
Drawing from Habakkuk, the Old Testament prophet, Mikhovich lays out prayer and charity as two cornerstones for Christian political engagement. A prayerful attitude puts our view of political leaders and their actions in the right perspective, he writes. Charity gives us the opportunity to model divine love to innocent victims.
“Habakkuk begins with a puzzled questioning and ends with worship,” writes Mikhovich. “The circumstances have not changed. Habakkuk’s attitude to what was happening changed; his heart changed. And the famous ending of his book shows that he is ready for any outcome and in any circumstances is ready to trust God.
“Are we ready to trust God, to worship Him, to rejoice about the God of salvation, even if potatoes did not grow, even if they turned off the internet, or even falsified the elections? And continue to pray for our beloved Belarus.”
Andrey Shirin is an associate professor of divinity and director of transformational leadership at John Leland Center for Theological Studies (Arlington, Virginia), where he researches and teaches at the intersection of theology, leadership, and public life.