Interview with Magda Kaczmarek, head of section for Belarus of the charity Aid to the Church in Need. In recent years she has visited the country on several occasions. The interview was conducted by Tobias Lehner and Maria Lozano.
The outcome of the August 9 election triggered serious riots, and media reports contained images of severe police action being taken against demonstrators. Is there cause to be fearful of further escalation, or even of civil war?
The country’s population was dissatisfied with the election result, and unrest and tension were already evident beforehand. Those are the reasons why people took to the streets. Initially there were bloody clashes with a lot of violence and aggression against the protesters, thousands of them were arrested, and many brutally beaten. According to local media, only a few hundred have been released thus far. In recent days the special units of the militia have withdrawn, and peaceful demonstrations can take place. Such protests have never previously occurred in the history of Belarus.
What are the people demanding?
The Belarusians are a disciplined and very well organised people. They are carrying flowers and balloons, or placards with slogans, such as “Don’t hit us!”. They walk peacefully through the streets, and the public gatherings are free from aggression. During the Communist era they experienced more than enough suffering and sorrow. Now they want only peace and quiet in their country, and they long for democracy. Young people in Belarus are well educated and eagerly follow the developments taking place in the neighbouring countries of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. In their eyes, the future is a topic overshadowed by a question mark. They believe that the time for change has come. Societal transformation is a natural process, and life doesn’t stand still. Against this background, the young generation want to adopt an open stance towards Europe and watch their own children grow up in a peaceful and tolerant society.
Europe appears to be rather at a loss and bewildered by current events and the ongoing political situation in Belarus. Do you see any opportunities for exerting influence – what can the EU and the eastern European neighbours do?
I am confident that the people are capable of resolving their own problems independently. Pope Francis addressed the Belarusians last Sunday (August 16) and called for peace and justice, and for a dialogue within society. I think his message is very clear. Belarus is a Christian country, the majority are Orthodox Christians, and the Roman Catholic Church makes up 10% of the population. Archbishop Monsignor Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the Roman Catholic Archbishop and Metropolitan of Minsk-Mohilev, appealed to the public last week and proposed a round table. He said, “At this turning point in our history, in the name of the merciful God, a God of love and peace, I call on all parties to the conflict to put an end to violence. Let your hands, which were created for peaceful work and fraternal love, be kept away from weapons and stones. Based on a dialogue conducted in truth and mutual love, let the strength of the argument prevail, not the argument of strength.” He went on to remark that Belarus had never witnessed the blood of one brother on the hands of another. Brutality, he said, had left deep scars, and he wanted to know who was going to heal the wounds. People have been hurt both physically and mentally, but there remains tremendous solidarity among the community for those who have been affected.
What can the churches do in practice to restore calm?
The bishops have issued a call to prayer. After church services, the Rosary is prayed and times of worship are held. Proclaiming the Gospel and the Truth is now more important than ever for priests and members of religious communities. People are looking for comfort and finding it in faith. Bishop Oleg Butkevych of Vitebsk told me that many people of Belarus have experience of moral conflict after being placed in situations in which they had to act against their own conscience. According to the Bishop, people should turn to God and trust in His mercy. God does not reject anyone; rather, he forgives all those who pray. Evil is to be fought with goodness. An example is provided by the women in white blouses on the streets who have physically embraced the militia and attached flowers to the backs of their riot shields. I once believed that people in the post-Soviet era were distrustful, lacked initiative and shunned responsibility, but I now think that recent days in Belarus have proved the opposite.
How would you describe the relationship among the Christian denominations in Belarus? What’s the current state of interreligious dialogue?
At the moment, common prayers for peace in the country are signalling great solidarity between the churches. The Orthodox Church and representatives of various Christian denominations, Judaism and Islam have joined the appeal of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz for nationwide prayer. As President of the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Belarus, he has said that there is no truth where violence reigns. Every deed against God and man is a serious sin. The Orthodox Metropolitan Pavel has also called for a renunciation of violence. Hatred and aggression, he insisted, are not a solution. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, moreover, all denominations joined forces to pray for help against the pandemic. According to Metropolitan Kondrusiewicz, such an example of solidarity was unprecedented. In addition, the common aspirations of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches to protect life, oppose abortion, and promote family life have been known for years.
How do you see the future prospects of Belarus – what course will the country steer between autocracy and democracy?
Belarus is a beautiful country with glorious landscapes, lakes and an abundance of natural resources. The agricultural collective farms belong to the state, but more and more people are turning their backs on rural life and going into the towns and cities to find work. Everywhere is neat and clean, and the roads are very good – that’s what I found during my project visits. The country is host to numerous universities with good lecturers and young people who are keen to learn. Together, these things create opportunities for a sense of freedom and democracy to develop, so that open and constructive dialogue with those in power is very important. The voice of the churches is undoubtedly a crucial factor in this context because only the truth can save mankind. By living their faith, the practising Christians of Belarus can serve as a great example for the western countries. Archbishop Kondrusiewicz has asked all the benefactors of ACN to pray for peace and against hatred.