New Patriarchal Exarches might be appointed for Belarus
On July 29th, celebrations dedicated to the Baptism of Russia 1025th Anniversary will be held in Minsk with Patriarch Kirill’s participation.
Important historic event and the visit of the Russian Orthodox Church leaders to Minsk can be used to change the Belarusian Orthodox Church leadership. President Lukashenko and Archpriest Povny synchronically made statements that confirm this possibility.
On July 26th in Minsk, President Lukashenko expressed a reformist criticism of the Orthodox Church. In particular, the president said that the Orthodox Church was “getting sick” and along with the state risked losing the younger generation. In addition, the president called for reform of the worship practices, since the older generation (“old ladies”) could not withstand long services. Also, the president negatively responded to the practice of erecting excessively large temple buildings. Finally, Lukashenko urged the Patriarch to start the church reform.
Experts linked the sharp polemical attack by Lukashenko with him not taking part in the main celebrations of the Baptism of Russia Anniversary in Kiev on July 26th, where Presidents Yanukovych and Putin and Patriarch Kirill were present. There is a possibility that Lukashenko’s harsh criticism was indeed connected with the “improper” invitation for him to visit Kiev. In other words, Lukashenko might have felt offended and snapped, as he did when he was not invited to Kiev to take part in the Chernobyl disaster anniversary celebration in April 2011 due to the simultaneous visit of European Commission President Barroso (Lukashenko then said that “Ukrainian leadership is lousy”).
Nevertheless, Lukashenko’s statements could have been addressing domestic issues – namely, changes in the Belarusian Orthodox Church leadership. In particular, for over a year there were couloirs discussions about possible successor of 78-year old Patriarchal Exarches Metropolitan Filaret. The most likely candidate to replace him is father superior of All Saints parish in Minsk, 53-year-old Exarches Fedor Povny.
It is noteworthy that on July 25th, Exarches Povny gave an interview to the Belarusian First TV Channel about preparations for the celebrations. Inter alia, Povny talked about his biography, about social and charitable projects carried out in Minsk and thanked the government for financial support to the Church. Povny also noted that he was pleased to see many children’s faces in the Church and that ‘old ladies for us are almost museum rarities’. In fact, on the following day, President Lukashenko said almost the same thing.
There was no broad media coverage of the Belarusian Orthodox Church leadership change issue, which allows assumptions that Povny and Lukashenko’s statements were coordinated recently and spontaneously. If so, the probability is high that the issue of changes in the Belarusian Orthodox Church leadership will be raised during Patriarch Kirill’s visit to Minsk.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.