In August 2020, desperate for change, over 100,000 Belarusians took to the streets of Minsk to protest the re-election of their first and only president, Alexander Lukashenko. His disputed sixth term was met with international condemnation, describing him as ‘Europe’s last dictator’. Lukashenko cracked down on the opposition, leading to violent clashes and thousands of arrests. Every day we hear news of senseless cruelty by law enforcement. Yet, many people continue to protest, they wear white, carry roses, and our historical red and white flag as symbols of hope for a better future.
Belarus is about the size of the United Kingdom with a population of 9.5 million. Thousands of beautiful lakes are scattered across the countryside of open farmland and ancient forests. Castles, Soviet-era buildings, areas abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster and modern buildings all reflect our changing history. The majority of people live in cities as a result of USSR policies that drove the rural population to urban areas. Economically, the country still has strong ties with Russia. Most businesses are state owned, some industries are struggling with strikes and bankruptcy while others continue to work successfully. For example, Belarus is one of the largest producers of heavy-duty construction vehicles.
A Long Struggle
Belarus is a post-Soviet country but it did not return to its national flag and emblem. Since Alexander Lukashenko became president in 1994, we have had unfair elections, independent media has gone, parliament has lost its power and opposition politicians have disappeared. Lukashenko alone administers and appoints judges.
Lukashenko came to power as a left-wing populist who promised voters social equity. He presents himself as a candidate of the people but, from the beginning, he faced opposition from those on both the left and the right who saw the danger earlier than others. Until recently, Lukashenko remained popular with voters. The 2020 election was expected to be typical.
However, our government was completely unprepared for the Covid-19 pandemic and made a number of catastrophic mistakes: insisting on the harmlessness of the disease, under reporting the death rate and even recommending vodka as a treatment. As the mortality rate became impossible to hide, the electorate turned against Lukashenko. Several candidates announced their desire to compete in the presidential elections but some were forced to flee abroad and others were imprisoned. This further embittered the already angry population of Belarus. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, an ordinary housewife, stood for election because her husband was imprisoned for his political ambitions. This courageous woman, who declared that she, ‘just wants to get her husband back and continue to fry the cutlets,’ became a symbol of the protests that flared up the night after the August 2020 elections.
Nobody expected so many people to come out in protest. The authorities were so frightened that they used unprecedented violence against the demonstrators. During the first two days of protests, more than 6,000 people were arrested, many of them were beaten, tortured and raped, and some were killed. Many military officers, policemen and even some Lukashenko regime officials openly condemned the violence by the security forces and a long confrontation began. The government hoped the protests would dissipate on their own, but as the number of protesters grew so did the arbitrary arrests and police violence. Five young people were sentenced to one-and-a-half to two years in prison for trying to write, ‘let’s not forget’ where a peaceful protester died, while the policeman who shot the demonstrator went free. Recently, a passenger plane was forced to divert to Minsk, so that a journalist critical of the government could be arrested. The lack of justice makes people feel angry and hopeless.
Church in Crisis
Although the majority consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians, most people are secular. Lukashenko once said that he is an ‘Orthodox atheist’. Few people attend church regularly, even less think of faith or religion as being important in their life. Alcoholism, divorce and suicide are common. However, there is pride that the Belarusian Bible was printed before Martin Luther started the Reformation. The Orthodox Church is under the control of the Belarusian government and only a few individual priests have condemned the violence. The Catholic Church took a firmer stance and called for dialogue, which led to their leader being expelled from Belarus. The small number of evangelical Christians in Belarus are divided over the church participating in politics. Some churches are not only wary of participation in political life but also in any public arena. However, other churches are discussing these new challenges.
A number of evangelical churches have unequivocally condemned the violence, called government officials to repentance and expressed solidarity with those affected by the actions of the Lukashenko regime. These Christians pay a high price for daring to speak out. One Protestant church was subsequently raided by security forces with eviction orders. Many have been arrested and fined or imprisoned for taking part in peaceful processions. After a young Christian politician and writer was arrested, he stated in court that he was tortured and forced to sleep on a concrete floor without access to water. Another Christian politician has been in custody since June 2020. He is accused of organising riots and faces up to 15 years in prison. A young man from my church was arrested and ordered to stand at a wall with his hands up for 16 hours, overnight, in the cold weather. Many people face accusations that are clearly politically motivated.
A number of evangelical churches have unequivocally condemned the violence, called government officials to repentance and expressed solidarity with those affected…
Every Belarusian is painfully familiar with these tragic stories. The perseverance and courage of those who sacrificed freedom or life in the name of justice and truth inspires others not to give up. ‘But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened”’ (1 Pet. 3:14). Few have the courage to stand up and speak the truth. However, some church leaders are bravely standing firm and a few secular activists have come to faith as a result.
I am a part of a ministry serving students in Belarus. Our goals are witnessing to unbelievers and encouraging spiritual growth in Christian students. We organise evangelistic events, training and conferences for Christians. Our primary and most effective method is through inductive Bible study in groups. We are convinced the Bible conveys the Lord’s message better than we can and the gospel stories provide strong evidence about God who became a man and a part of human history.
Belarusian universities attract international students from poor countries. Although our education is not very good, it is cheaper than in the USA or western European countries. Most are Muslims from Central Asia and the Maghreb North African countries. The number of students from India and China has increased. Some students come from countries that are closed towards Christianity. While they are here, we want to share with them about Jesus Christ.
Where is Our Hope?
This last year has been especially difficult for the Christian community in Belarus with many new issues and challenges. However, we have continued to try to do what we should: to preach the gospel. Despite persecution, our aim is to keep our focus and not stop sharing the truth. Because of the political situation in our country, topics like hope, forgiveness and salvation have been brought to the forefront. Our society needs moral values and we actively point people to biblical answers and standards. In time of trouble we better understand our need of God’s help. Our difficult circumstances can be discouraging, but they also present an opportunity for the church to be a beacon of light. What impact could we have if more Christians rose up and boldly shared the truth of the Bible, demonstrating what it is to love our neighbours? Through the gospel, we can offer a lasting hope and real peace. Belarus now especially needs your prayers.
- for peace in Belarus
- for healing for those who have suffered
- for the unity of the evangelical churches
- for the student ministry
- for Belarusians to hear the gospel and come to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour.