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Moscow Patriarchate nativizing its church branch in Belarus to prevent moves toward autocephaly

2020: Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church elevates Bishop Veniamin, “newly elected Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus,” to the church rank of Metropolitan. Photo:
Moscow Patriarchate nativizing its church branch in Belarus to prevent moves toward autocephaly
Edited by: Yuri Zoria
On Sunday, 6 September, Moscow Patriarch Kirill elevated to the dignity of metropolitan the man he has chosen to head the exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus and declared he had appointed Veniamin because the nationality factor has become ever more important in Russia’s Western neighbor.

Specifically, Kirill said,

“We came to the conclusion about the necessity of having at the head of the Belarusian Church a man who was born in Belarus, knows Belarusian and was raised in a Belarusian milieu” instead of his predecessor Pavel who was born in Kazakhstan and carried a Russian passport.

“Korenizatsiya” (“nativizing” or “indigenizing”) was an early-soviet temporary “localization policy” for the integration of non-Russian nationalities into the governments of their soviet republics in the 1920s, which ended up with the purges of locals in 1930 under “bourgeois nationalism” and other charges.

Regnum commentator Geogry Shklovsky says that Kirill believes that by the Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus, he will be better positioned to block any demands that may arise for autocephaly there; but there is a risk that this and related moves will have exactly the opposite effect and spark more calls for Belarus to have its own national church.

The pro-Western opposition in Belarus was hostile to Pavel when he was appointed, viewing him as an agent of the Kremlin, and some of them called for separating the Belarusian exarchate from the ROC MP and making it a self-standing autocephalous church. But Pavel felt confident he had put off such talk for 25 or even 50 years.

Metropolitan Pavel in the hospital visits those beaten by police at anti-Lukashenka protests, 17 August 2020. Source:
A major reason Pavel felt that way was that he continued the policy of his predecessor of “rooting” (korenizatisya) of the church in Belarus, promoting the use of the Belarusian language in services and the translation of the Bible into Belarusian. But the parishes of the ROC in Belarus remained overwhelmingly Russian-speaking.

Pavel’s policies within the church were overshadowed by his deference to Alyaksandr Lukashenka whom he supported in all things, thus offending many Belarusian nationalists and even some of his own hierarchs like Hrodna Archbishop Artemiy, whose anti-Lukashenka views Pavel disowned.

According to Skhlovsky, “until recently, the Belarusian exarchate of the ROC was a model of success of broad autonomy without formal proclamation of autonomy.” But now, that pattern has been violated. The Orthodox faithful in Belarus have been affected by what is going on in Belarusian life, and the Moscow Patriarchate has now made a nod in their direction.

Kirill clearly believes that this will restore the situation that existed before the presidential elections and protests about them, but it is at least possible that having won this concession from Moscow, some in Belarus, including in the ROC there, will demand more – and it is not clear to what new defensive line Kirill can withdraw.

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Edited by: Yuri Zoria
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