A Brief Overview of Orthodox History in Belarus

Belarus accepted Christianity from the Byzantine Empire with the establishment of the first diocese (the Polotsk diocese) in 992, which is regarded as the year of the foundation of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy was the dominant faith in the Belarusian lands for several centuries, and Belarusians, as Afanasiy Martos notes, ‘liked their churches and regularly attended all services’. However, in 1596 most hierarchs in the Orthodox Church of Rzech Pospolita (at that time under the jurisdiction of the Constantinople Patriarchate) agreed to union with Catholic Church, accepting authority of the Pope and the key Catholic doctrines, but keeping Orthodox rites (the Brest union).

The establishment of the Uniate Church was solely the initiative of political leaders and hierarchs, not supported by the majority of the clergy and laity. Therefore, the power of the Polish kings was subsequently used to force the Belarusian population to convert to Uniatism. This process, which was accompanied by the violent persecution of Orthodox believers, resulted in two centuries in the situation whereby the Uniate confession became formally dominant. As church historian Valentina Teplova emphasized:

In spite of the strong resistance of the Orthodox people and ordinary clergy, the authorities (both spiritual and temporal) were able by means of the provision of substantial benefits, by threats and repressions, to forcibly introduce Uniatism into the Belarusian lands. At the end of the eighteenth century around 80 per cent of Belarusian peasants were Uniates.

The union was gradually rejected after Belarus joined the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century (as a result of three partitions of Rzech Pospolita in 1772, 1793 and 1795). The process of return from Unitaism to Orthodoxy was mainly voluntary and peaceful, apart from a small number of cases, which were related to political controversies.  The culminating point came in 1839, when the official unification of the Uniates with the Russian Orthodox Church took place. The decision about unification was adopted in February 1839, by the Council of the Uniate Church held in Polotsk, which was presented by Afanasiy Martos as: ‘thus ended the existence of Brest Union, which brought so much grief and suffering to Belarusian people’.

Attempts to revive Unitaism were made in Belarus in the late 1980s, but failed, although the Uniate (Greek Catholic) Church was established and obtained official registration. At present, the Uniate Church exists as a small denomination, with only 14 parishes in Belarus (as of 1 January 2010).

An excerpt from book “Eastern Christianity and Politics in the Twenty-First Century”
by Lucian N. Leustean

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