Belarusian Baptists Look to Habakkuk Amid Mass Protests of ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’

Image: Sergei Grits / AP Images
Image: Sergei Grits / AP Images

Christian denominations in Belarus are not engaged in many joint projects and generally steer clear of politics. But the controversial reelection of “Europe’s last dictator” has united them in prayer—and in their public stance on politics.

Belarus has been embroiled in mass protests since its August 9 presidential election. For the past 26 years, the Eastern European country the size of Kansas has been led by President Alexander Lukashenko, who in 1994 won the first election since the former Soviet republic became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union three years earlier. Following his election, Lukashenko changed the constitution to eliminate term limits. No election since has been recognized as free and fair by international observers.

This year, the opposition rallied around Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran in place of her husband after he was disqualified and jailed. She promised a return to the 1994 constitution with a subsequent clean presidential poll early next year. The official results of the August 9 vote showed Lukashenko winning with 80 percent of the vote. The opposition claimed the tally was fraudulent. Mass protests swept the country of 10 million people. Protesters were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons, and stun grenades. Thousands were detained. Multiple reports of torture in detention centers hit social media.

In response, Christians are uniting in prayer at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. every day. A joint statement entitled “Prayer and Hope” was issued by evangelical leaders: Leonid Mikhovich, leader of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in Belarus; Sergey Tsvor, leader of the United Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith in Belarus; and Leonid Voronenko, leader of the charismatic Religious Association of Full Gospel Communities in Belarus.

The three called on their fellow countrymen to refrain from hatred, revenge, and bitterness. After a customary exhortation to pray for those in power, their statement calls for Christians to pray for the end of “brutality, violence, and bloodshed,” and also for victims and their families.

“Earthly hopes are not always fulfilled (Luke 24:21), but our hope is the Lord Jesus Christ; whoever believes in him will not be ashamed (1 Peter 2:6),” they wrote. “And if now there is no bright light in the clouds, then the wind will blow and clear them (Job 37:21).”

The last few days have seen largely peaceful demonstrations. The government promised to investigate police brutality. Authorities are releasing detainees, who describe harrowing beatings, days without food, and threats of rape. This past Sunday, Lukashenko spoke before 50,000 supporters in Minsk, the capital city. But his rally was dwarfed by a nearby gathering, where 200,000 protested the election outcome. On Monday morning, Lukashenko was jeered while speaking at a Minsk factory.

Looming large is Russia, Belarus’s eastern neighbor, and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. Analysts have speculated whether Putin might intervene for Lukashenko, as the opposition in Belarus would likely seek closer relations with the West if it comes to power. Putin sent Lukashenko his customary congratulations, but their relationship has been noticeably tense as of late. This tension was on public display during Victory Day celebrations in Moscow back in June when Lukashenko ostentatiously refused to stand next to Putin, to the visible chagrin of the Russian president. In a bizarre twist, Lukashenko had more than 30 Russian citizens arrested at the end of July. For days, he accused them of intending to undermine civil order in Belarus before eventually blaming it all on the Ukraine.

Lukashenko, a self-declared “Orthodox atheist,” has cultivated a relationship with the Belarusian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, a part of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is the only Orthodox church de facto permitted in Belarus. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, congratulated Lukashenko upon his election. Yet these congratulations disappeared from the website of the Moscow Patriarchate a couple of days later. Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, neither congratulated Lukashenko nor put Kirill’s congratulations on his department’s website. Metropolitan Pavel, head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, initially congratulated Lukashenko. However, after a few days, he retracted his congratulations and condemned police brutality.

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Source: Christianity Today