BELARUS: What Hope for True Orthodox Parishes?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 11 October 2002

A True Orthodox parish in the Belarusian capital Minsk has lodged a complaint to the Council of Ministers over the failure by officials to respond to its registration application within the prescribed three-month period. "We applied for registration back in June," a member of the St Tikhon Patriarch of Moscow parish told Keston News Service on 11 October, "and we should have had a response by 17 September. But we have heard nothing." The parishioner - who preferred not to be named - remained hopeful that the parish would be registered. However, Bishop Agafangel (Pashkovsky) of Sevastopol and Crimea, under whose authority the parish comes, said his parishes faced "very great difficulties" in Belarus. "Officials told our priest that our Church has no future in the country," he told Keston from the diocesan office in the Ukrainian city of Odessa on 11 October.

Keston tried to reach Alla Ryabitseva, head of the Department for Religious and Ethnic Affairs at Minsk City Council, on 11 October to ask her why the parish's registration application had not been processed in the prescribed three-month period, but her telephone went unanswered.

The Belarusian government has repeatedly refused to register any Orthodox parishes outside the framework of the Moscow Patriarchate - whether of the True Orthodox Church, the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church or other jurisdictions. On 1 August the authorities bulldozed a newly-built Autocephalous Orthodox Church in the village of Pahranichny close to Belarus' western border with Poland (see KNS 2 August 2002).

Bishop Agafangel reported that his jurisdiction now has only one priest in Belarus, Father Leonid Plyats. "There was another, but he couldn't take the pressure placed on him and returned to the Moscow Patriarchate." The bishop said there are three semi-open parishes, with more parishes "underground". "There would be more if the situation was open." He said that even these three parishes have difficulty conducting open religious activity. "They don't have the right to conduct services."

The repeated refusal by the government's Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs to register any Orthodox communities outside the framework of the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church has no basis in the current or the forthcoming law on religion. Nevertheless, Aleksandr Kalinov, head of the religious affairs department of the Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, told Keston on 8 October that the refusal is justified because the Belarusian Exarchate is the "only canonical jurisdiction". He was unable to explain why the canonicity or otherwise of any Orthodox jurisdictions was of concern to the government.

The Minsk True Orthodox parishioner preferred not to comment on the new religion law adopted by parliament on 2 October and awaiting signature by President Aleksandr Lukashenko (see KNS 9 October 2002). However, Bishop Agafangel was critical of the role the new law gave the Moscow Patriarchate. "The Moscow Patriarchate is a Soviet Church that needs great changes and improvements," he told Keston. "I am against the law giving pre-eminence to such a sick structure."

Bishop Agafangel declared that all his Church wanted was "equal conditions" for it to operate in Belarus. "We want to revive freely, open parishes, build churches, conduct missionary activity and have legal rights just like any other Church." (END)