There’s a reason why Orthodox theologian and human rights lawyer Natallia Vasilevich prefers to speak of the role of Christians rather than the role of churches in Belarusian society.
She prefers to speak about the role of Christians because, in the current Belarusian context, institutional churches often fail to stand up for human rights while individual Christians at the grassroots are bringing a prophetic voice with seeds of hope.
“Many Christians are more motivated, and are taking responsibility—and also take consequences for their lives—when they join the democratic movement…the movement for fair elections, for human rights, for justice and peace,” said Vasilevich, who also serves as moderator of the ecumenical group Christian Vision, which unites Belarusian theologians, clerics and active laity of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Anglican and Evangelical churches that promote respect to human dignity and rights, rule of law, justice, peace, and Christian witness in social and political life.
Given the high level of oppression by the Belarusian government, even so-called small voices make a big impact, said Vasilevich.
“People can go to prison just for saying a few words,” she said, adding that Christians engaged in the human rights movement in Belarus “bear a lot of burden on themselves and they are ready to sacrifice.”
From a small picture on Facebook to laying flowers at a rail station, from displaying a sticker on a vehicle to simply gathering in prayer—these are all manifestations of the voices of Christian human rights advocates.
“That’s why they are probably not always visible as Christians but I think it’s very important to give them this vocality because the small signs should be promoted,” said Vasilevich.
She lifts up the example of Orthodox priest Mikhail Marugo from Minsk who, after standing with flowers at a railway station in one of the days when the war started, was imprisoned for 13 days.
She lifts up priests who were imprisoned for posting profile pictures on Facebook with the Ukrainian flag, such as Catholic priest Aliaksandr Baran.
She lifts up Greek-Catholic priest Vasil Yahorau who had a sticker on his car that read “Forgive us, Ukraine”—and was imprisoned for it.
“In this shrunken public space, it’s very difficult to witness for churches,” said Vasilevich.
“Orthodox women, mothers came to pray together, to the Mother of God before her Minsk icon in the Orthodox cathedral, and while entering the cathedral they were filmed. Four women, after the service, were taken to the police station and asked why they were praying to the Mother of God against the war.”
Even if the message of institutional churches is unable to be strong, the message of the individual Christians is shining, insists Vasilevich.
“It shows Christians have this moral motivation inspired by the gospel,” she said.
“They do not fear. They try to be messengers of justice and peace in Belarusian society.”
Seeds of a prophetic voice
Too often, Vasilevich sees that religious leaders, instead of supporting their priests or their parishioners who protest, try to suppress them. She describes alliances between certain religious leaders with the oppressive government, very often based on manipulation of religion that tries to silence the prophetic voice.
Who needs the solidarity of the world? The Christians who “at grassroots levels, who find motivation, who find their voice and could try to speak as the voice of the churches and the voice of the gospel in the society.”
Vasilevich believes these are the Christians who can make a change, not only for society but also “for the churches to renew their commitment, to renew their mission, to renew their responsibility for justice and peace in a political crisis but also in the whole world.”
Therein lies the hope, Vasilevich said: “Small signs of hope, but hope is a seed which grows. It starts to grow and bear fruits.”
Helping their neighbor
Vasilevich believes we should respect seeds of peace and justice—not only fruits. “I hope that this will helps us also in this Ukrainian crisis as something very specific for us because we share responsibility for the invasion,” she said.
“Belarusian society shares responsibility for invasion because a lot of military activity comes from our land.”
She urged showing solidarity for Ukrainian brothers and sisters who suffer, “and to help them, to compensate this damage which has been done by the government of Belarus which we do not recognize as a legitimate government but which still controls the country.”
Many Christians in Belarus now are not focused on their own problems but on doing their best for Ukraine, she added.
“This shift of focus given to something else—not for our own interests but our neighbor—is also very important for us, and it gives a new energy to the democratic movement and the movement for justice and peace,” Vasilevich said.
Learn more about Christian Vision Group in Belarus
Ecumenical telegram channel “Christians against war” (in Russian)
First Published on the World Council of Churches website on 28 April 2022.