Belarusian Orthodox circles call it the beginning of a new era, as Metropolitan Pavel, its new leader who recently moved from Russia to Belarus, stated he would ask the Moscow Patriarchate to grant the Belarusian Orthodox Church self-governing status.
Currently, the Belarusian Orthodox Сhurch constitutes a part of the Moscow Patriarchate and lacks the authority to deal even with minor issues without Moscow's consent.
The Belarusian authorities and the clergy support the idea because they want to limit Russian influence. The Moscow Patriarchate will likely ignore the request from Belarus, but it may not last forever.
The First Timid Step to Independence
The war in Ukraine has intensified the desire of the authorities to control those institutions that are dependent on other states. Though Belarus remains a largely atheistic country, the Belarusian Orthodox Church enjoys great credibility among Belarusians.
According to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, the Belarusian Orthodox Church is the most trusted institution in the country, with 63% of Belarusians stating they trust it.
On 16 December priests from Minsk applauded during Metropolitan Pavel's statement who said that he would seek self-governing status for the Belarusian Orthodox Church.
Pavel’s initiative brought joy for the Belarusian clergy, but not empire-minded Russians. A popular Russian news site Regnum accused Belarus of moving towards autocephaly (i.e. complete separation from the Russian Orthodox Church).
The Russian Orthodox sites mostly condemned the statement of the Belarusian Metropolitan, and the Moscow Patriarchate keeps silence. For Russians, who feel like they live amongst their enemies, Pavel’s statement was akin to a knife in the back.
The wishes of the Belarusian Orthodox Church are no doubt reasonable. The Belarusian Orthodox Church has a very weak position in the Orthodox world and remains the only Exarchate, a mere province of the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia. The Belarusian Orthodox Church unites all of the dioceses in Belarus, but lacks any power over them and is unable to make decisions on its own.
Metropolitan Pavel got his job without so much as a discussion about his candidacy with the Belarusian clergy, orthodox Christians or the authorities. Even now Pavel's Range Rover has Russian registration plates on it. Needless to say, his announcement regarding the Belarusian Orthodox Church's aspirations for greater autonomy came as a big surprise.
Why the Belarusian Orthodox Church Needs More Rights
Self-governing status within the Moscow Patriarchate should not be confused with autocephaly and separation from it. The Russian Orthodox Church has five levels of independence.
First, there is the metropolitan district, like in Kazakhstan, which lacks any rights to make its own decisions. Second, there is an exarchate, which brings together a large number of dioceses, but has no power. Belarus is an exarchate. Third, there are self-governing churches like in Estonia or Latvia. Pavel wants to upgrade the Belarusian Orthodox Сhurch to this level.
Currently any talks about the fourth and fifth levels which are close to having autocephalous status ,and which the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of Japan have, remain impossible at this time.
According to the Metropolitan, “it hurts” that the Belarusian Orthodox Сhurch remains at such a low level.
Today decisions of the Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Сhurch, even technical ones, cannot come into force before the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Patriarch in Moscow considers them. Belarusian priest Alexander Shramko has said that this demonstrates “total distrust”.
As a result, the Belarusian Orthodox Church remains sluggish and is gradually losing Belarus. 120 thousand Orthodox believers and 58 thousand Catholics attended religious services on Christmas, there are seven times more Orthodox christians than Catholics in Belarus.