L a d u s h k i n -- The people of Belarus are experiencing duress: Inflation is pervasive and prices on foreign items such as car parts have skyrocketed. Portions of its population of 9,4 million are not only fleeing westward – other are simply fleeing “city-ward”. Rural areas especially in the east of the country are emptying. Leonid Mikhovich of Minsk, president of the country’s 12.000-member Baptist union and rector of its seminary, described to me the rate of emigration to the political west as a “strong trickle”. One of the city’s leading Baptist congregations has lost roughly 10% of its 200 members since the disputed presidential elections of August 2020.
Stay-at-homers note that Belarusian migrants in neighbouring countries are far from settled: The struggle for housing and employment remains a daily one. More than a few of them would consider a return to the homeland once political conditions seem more agreeable. Rev. Mikhovich reported that more than a few younger persons are disappointed by the political stance of the country’s churches. Younger visitors “had not placed their hope in Christ, but were instead counting on us to take a political stand”.
A wide spectrum of views regarding the proper church stance remains. Another observer reported on conservative Baptists citing 1. Samuel 15:23 as proof that resistance to governmental authority is always sin. Yet a letter from 49 Protestant pastors from August 2020 refers to 1. Kings 10:9 as an indication that God’s approval of a ruler is conditional. Mikhovich agrees that individual believers may be involved in politics. The church though, which is called to represent the whole, cannot indulge in such freedoms.
Church life continues
Despite Covid, emigration and finances, Belarus’ churches have as churches not suffered significantly from the unrest of August 2020. Besides Minsk, Protestant groups in the Western border cities of Brest and Grodno remain innovative and active. Very public events including a Bible exhibition were held in Brest during 2021. (The Baptist Bible belt at Kobrin in the southwestern corner of the country is more traditional in its style and thinking.) Baptist youth clubs are springing up and they are very much geared to reaching the young.
The historic reserve between Baptists and Pentecostals has slackened. Mikhovich reported that the heads of Minsk’s evangelical denominations have regularly enjoyed intensive and helpful gatherings. “We do not call ourselves an ‘Evangelical Alliance’, but that is essentially our function.”
The Roman-Catholic „Red Church“ at a prominent location on the city’s „Independence Square” had played a very visible role during the protests of 2020. Yet it remains according to Mikhovich active and largely undisturbed by government authorities.
Financial payments for caritative efforts and children’s camps remain possible. Mikhovich reported though that most recent humanitarian aid intended for Middle-Eastern refugees on the Polish border near Grodno needed to be sent through intermediaries such as the Red Cross.
At the same time, for the past 10 years, registration of fledgling, new church plants has remained tedious. Leonid Mikhovich stated that such groups continue “meeting illegally in a formal sense, but no one is touching them yet”.
But Minsk’s 1.000-member, Charismatic “New Life” congregation has been touched. Following highly-vocal political statements, its structure – originally a cow barn purchased in 2002 – was shuttered in February 2021. (See also our release from 28 June 2011.) Most worship services, even now in the dead of winter, are taking place in the car park adjacent to its never-registered chapel. Smaller events are held at multiple locations in the city; “Telegram” keeps the members informed on developments and locations.
A return to pre-1990 conditions is unthinkable. Russian-language worship services are being broadcast from throughout the world, including Minsk and Brest. Though private travel between Belarus and neighbouring Ukraine has become difficult, Ukrainian worship services regularly reach into Belarusian homes. It’s the fittest who survive; cherished denominational monopolies are no more.
Though resident foreign missionaries are gone from Belarus, the country remains – as has been the case since 2014 - the most suitable, visa-free place for church leaders from Russia and Ukraine to meet. Several three-or-more-country gatherings are currently in the offing.
Until October 2021, even US-Americans were able to enter the country visa-free through Minsk airport (if arriving from a Western country). That policy still holds for air-borne guests from many Western countries. Though the number of foreign visitors has dropped back to a trickle, that condition is not necessarily due to Belarusian’s policy on tourist visas. At least one Baptist pastoral couple from Belarus visited the USA during Summer 2021.
President Michovich stated: “Our political walls dare not reach higher than our (Christian) ones. It is unacceptable if the political situation between Ukraine and Russia affects the relationships of the believers to each other.” Pastors are not being imprisoned and he believes churches are not being pressured unduly. “But we do not know what the future will hold.”
One Baptist leader in Minsk describes the current period as a time of silence (“molchanie”). Yet this quietude is not induced strictly by a fear of state repression. Time is now needed to formulate a fresh Christian response suited to the new state of public affairs.
It strikes me that Western media has described Belarusian opposition as an all-or-nothing affair. One was either for Alexander Lukashenko or the “woke” crowd of Hillary Clinton and Justin Trudeau. Yet there are additional options possible between the extremes. The churches of the German Democratic Republic had been successful in formulating a middle course between the extremes: they wanted a socialism with a human face, a socialism neither completely for nor against the existing order.
Belarusian evangelicals already possess some of the ingredients needed for a third way. Western regime-changers, neo-liberals and neo-cons have been cheering along the dissidents of Belarus. But “eastern Slavic” evangelicals are not their natural ideological allies: Belarusian evangelicals desire a somewhat theocratic Christian-Democratic order akin to that being pushed by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Franklin Graham and Eastern Orthodoxy. One Minsk evangelical assured me: “We are preparing for the future. Christian values could transform our society.” A theocracy is of course not what the liberal world order has in mind.
I personally would prefer a political front much wider than a Christian-Democratic one. Let us accept the current political parameters such as they are and attempt to do good and win allies within the given boundaries. We can locate coalition partners palatable to the existing authorities. One Minsk dissident stated that 30% still support Lukashenko. There must be many among them who look beyond their own pocketbooks, who can think in terms of the common good. They cannot all be ogres and they would have access to the existing halls of power, not just to the streets.
It is highly unlikely that the East-West bridge function once practiced by Alexander Lukashenko will return anytime soon. Belarusians could instead embrace the opportunity to be part of a new emerging Eurasian order within a multi-polar world. It would be a genuine opportunity for a Belarusian or Russian evangelical to participate in a new order stretching from Brest in the west to the Bering Strait and Hong Kong in the east. Their presence in this rare and unique context need not be seen as a coincidence. These evangelicals can be part of an opportunity largely closed to Western Protestants – that God has a special plan for them in their own highly-unique location.
It would be folly to prematurely throw in the towel and rush through the open gates to Vilnius or squeeze one more body into seriously-overcrowded Düsseldorf. Russians keep assuring me: “Look, life is liveable here, too!” I think then of the highly-successful Mennonite farmers and entrepreneurs in Apollonovka to the west of Omsk. They’re already servicing the Chinese market next door. (See our release from 2 May 2021.)
A businessman from Shanghai, Eric X. Li, assures that “democracy” as defined by the political West cannot be the ultimate measure of social happiness. He cites the responsiveness of government to the desires of its citizens as a more accurate measure of quality governance. When it comes to health care, education, housing, just salaries and public transportation, the US model is largely unresponsive to the demands of its citizenry. We can afford to get creative.
Ladushkin, Kaliningrad region, 07 February 2022