BELARUS: Did Moscow Patriarchate Priest Bless Church Destroyers?

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 29 July 2002

As attempts continue to destroy the newly-built Autocephalous Orthodox church in the town of Pahranichny close to Belarus' western border with Poland (see separate KNS article), controversy has centred on whether the local Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox priest, Father Sergei (Shelest), blessed those being transported by bus to undertake the demolition. Father Yan Spasyuk, priest of the Pahranichny autocephalous parish and head of the Autocephalous Church in Belarus, told Keston News Service on 29 July that Father Sergei blessed workers who boarded a bus to take them to the site of his church to assist in the demolition work. "What pains me more than anything," he told Keston, "is how a priest can bless people who are pulling down crosses and a Christian church." Contacted in Pahranichny by telephone on 29 July, Father Sergei declined to tell Keston if this information was true or not. "I can't comment without the blessing of my hierarch, Bishop Artemi of Hrodna," he repeatedly declared.

Father Spasyuk insists that information about Father Sergei's blessing of those setting off to demolish the church is reliable. "Several people who were on that bus told me of this. Father Sergei also said in a sermon that if people did not go to destroy the church they and their children would be cursed."

Begged by Keston to seek Bishop Artemi's permission for him to tell the truth about what he had or had not done, Father Sergei said he could not contact Bishop Artemi before Thursday. However, he remained suspicious of Keston. "I'm not sure you have full information. I don't know where you got this information," he declared. "I don't know who you are."

Asked whether he was not ashamed to be supporting the destruction of a church of another Christian denomination, Father Sergei responded: "I'm not ashamed. I'm an Orthodox priest." Asked what his attitude would be if the church is destroyed he declared: "It's not my affair. It's the authorities who are taking these measures. I'm not persecuting them and have no intention of doing so. My aim is simply to pray with my flock."

Pyotr Dudko, the Berastavitsa district's religious affairs official, confirmed to Keston the long-standing tension between the two Orthodox parishes in Pahranichny. "Father Sergei regularly told his parishioners from the pulpit that Spasyuk had been stripped of his holy orders and that he is not a proper priest," Dudko told Keston on 29 July. "He told them any rites Spasyuk conducts - like weddings or burials - are not proper rites." However, Dudko was unaware of whether Father Sergei had blessed those sent to destroy the church or not.

Andrei Petrashkevich, official spokesman for Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk, head of the Moscow Patriarchate's Belarusian Exarchate, was sceptical that Father Sergei would have blessed those leaving to destroy the autocephalous church. "This is very doubtful information," he told Keston by telephone from Minsk on 29 July. "It doesn't deserve credibility." However, he promised to try to find out conclusively by the next day whether Father Sergei gave his blessing or not.

At the same time Petrashkevich had little sympathy for Father Spasyuk and his endangered church. "We don't call it a church. He is not a priest of the Orthodox Church - indeed he was deprived of his holy orders by the Church. What he's building is his own private initiative." He said the Belarusian Exarchate could not comment on the destruction of the church. "The local authorities should comment on their actions themselves." Asked whether he was not troubled that a Christian church of another denomination is to be destroyed he declared: "It is not a church of any registered faith - it's not a Christian building."

Despite its requests for registration, the government has barred the registration of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, on the grounds that a canonical entity - the Belarusian Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate - is the only Orthodox jurisdiction that may be registered.

Asked whether the Belarusian Exarchate would oppose the state registration of the Autocephalous Church were it to be granted, Petrashkevich declared: "That is a question for the state. We would accept it as a fact if they were given registration." (END)