In Belarus, Archbishop Artemy is "sent into retirement”: fair or not?

What path will the former Grodno bishop choose? Photo: UOJ

A supporter of the Belarusian "Maidan" was sent into retirement in the BOC.Is it a reprisal against the unwanted, a trade-off or an attempt to bring peace to the Church?

Believers and non-believers in Belarus and abroad are still concerned with the dimissal of Archbishop Artemy, the only church hierarch who openly supported last year's Belarusian “Maidan”. What is this: a reprisal against dissidents or concern for church unity? Who is right in this situation – the Synod or the disgraced archbishop? How can the situation develop further and are there parallels with Ukraine? Let's try to figure it all out.

Journal No. 27 of the meeting of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church dated June 9, 2021, officially reads:

“HAVE A JUDGMENT on the report of His Grace Metropolitan Benjamin of Minsk and Zaslawye, Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus, regarding the decision adopted at the meeting of the Synod of the Belarusian Exarchate of June 8, 2021 to petition His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All-Rus and the Holy Synod for sending into retirement His Eminence Archbishop Artemy of Grodno and Vawkavysk for reasons of health and the appointment to the Grodno See Bishop Anthony of Slutsk and Soligorsk with the release from the administration of the Slutsk diocese.

IT IS RESOLVED: 1. To send into retirement His Grace Archbishop Artemy of Grodno and Vawkavysk for health reasons, according to the petition of the Synod of the Belarusian Exarchate, determining the city of Minsk as the place of residence for His Grace Archbishop Artemy ..."

However, behind these modest words, there is a serious confrontation ... No, not between the Belarusian exarch Metropolitan Benjamin and Archbishop Artemy, but between two views on whether the Church can participate in the collapse of the state or not.

Belarusian "Maidan"

On August 9, 2020, the presidential elections were held in Belarus. According to official statistics, the incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko won 80.10% of the vote while his main opponent Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – 10.12%. Supporters of the latter declared the election results to be faulsified and immediately after the closure of polling stations protests began. These protests were declared "massive" by the opposition, although the number of participants was relatively small. The protests were unsanctioned, and law enforcers tried to put them down. Water jets, rubber truncheons, detentions, arrests, criminal cases ...

It sounds impressive but in reality – nothing that would not happen in the United States, France, Germany and other countries that are considered examples of democracy. However, the opposition skillfully unleashed the violent suppression of protests and threw the slogan “three nights of terror” into the media space, implying the special cruelty of the security forces towards the protesters on August 9-12, 2020. Further, the opposition tried to organize strikes at Belarusian enterprises, which in general were not supported by the workers. About a month later, it became obvious that the attempt to overthrow the power in Belarus according to the Ukrainian scenario had failed. The first to understand this were the main activists of the failed coup, who fleed abroad.

As in Ukraine, religious organizations played an important role in the Belarusian “Maidan”.

As in Ukraine, religious organizations played an important role in the Belarusian “Maidan”. In our country, one of the main organizers of the "Revolution of Dignity"-2013-2014 and the force that recruited its supporters to seize power were the Greek Catholics. The leader of the UGCC Sviatoslav Shevchuk called directly to go to the Maidan and fight the authorities, and one of the Uniate hierarchs Boris Gudziak said that half of the participants in the protest movement in Ukraine were Greek Catholics.

Moreover, both Ukrainian Uniates and Belarusian Catholics were preparing for protests declared as peaceful but originally conceived as forceful. Back on August 4, 2020, the head of the Belarusian Catholics, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, hinted that in connection with the presidential elections Belarus would face a "storm" and urged not to fear it. “Therefore, let us not be afraid of difficulties, for Jesus is with us. If we trust Him, and various social and political forces act in accordance with the spirit of the Gospel and care for the common good of our country, then Jesus will help us different (different - this is natural) to be one people, mutually loving and respectful brothers and sisters, and the storm will be replaced by calmness,” said Kondrusiewicz. Seemingly correct words, but firstly, how did he know about the "storm" that really broke out, and secondly, the real meaning of these words became clear after the protests and strikes.

Also, long before the presidential elections, the Catholic Church in Belarus began to promote the “Catholic does not falsify” movement in the media space, implying that the upcoming elections will be necessarily rigged. The activists of this movement stated that “participation in falsifications or suppression of the facts of falsifications is a grave sin that must be confessed”, and also that “elections in Belarus have never been fair. This is clear also because during the entire period of Lukashenko’s presidency, Metropolitan Kondrusiewicz never congratulated him on his victory as he well understood the cost of these elections”.

That is, the Belarusian Catholics initially sided with the opponents of the current government in Belarus and indirectly called their supporters on the coup d’etat in the hope that it would be successful.

But the schismatics from Orthodoxy also did not stand aside.

"The Orthodox Church of Belarus"?

As you know, the support of the schismatic structures by the authorities and then the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine became possible only with the coming to power of the "right" rulers, and first of all – the former President P. Poroshenko. That is why Ukrainian schismatics from the UOC-KP and the UAOC actively welcomed the Euromaidan and contributed with all their might to its success, and then tried to export the "tomos" ideology to Belarus. On August 17-18, 2019, Chernigov hosted a conference on the issue of autocephaly of the so-called Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, in which the spokesperson for of the OCU Ivan (Eustratiy) Zoria and the head of the Belarusian schismatics “Archbishop” Sviatoslav Longin took an active part. The latter said on Radio Liberty: “The example of Ukraine shows that Belarus should strive for spiritual independence from Moscow. The fact that Belarus as an Orthodox state does not have its own independent first hierarch is a violation of the canons and a violation of the historicity of our Belarusian church." And another active figure of the OCU, Georgy Kovalenko, the very next day after the Belarusian elections, on August 10, wrote on his Facebook page: "The Orthodox Church of Belarus is already a reality, albeit unconscious and unorganized."

Tikhanovskaya published the so-called “Reanimation Package of Reforms for Belarus”, which included a clause on the dissolution of the Belarusian Exarchate and the creation of the “Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church”.

In the midst of the protests, the Belarusian opposition, headed by S. Tikhanovskaya, published the so-called "Reanimation Package of Reforms for Belarus", where, among other proposals, there is a de facto ban on the Russian language, the sale of Belarusian lands to Western entities and NATO membership, a clause on the disbandment of the Belarusian exarchate and the creation of the "Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church." Everything is the blueprint for action...

Belarusian "Maidan" and Archbishop Artemy

On August 16, 2020, in the midst of protests in Belarus, when it seemed to many that the "Maidan" would win and oppositionists like S. Tikhanovskaya would come to power, Archbishop Artemy from the church pulpit supported the protesters and sharply condemned the actions of the authorities.

“Our people have turned into beasts and torment their own brothers. Therefore, in this message we say: ‘Stop! You are not acting according to the Gospel! You raised your hand against Christ and you will not be forgiven! And your work will never stand!’ so the archbishop said about the brutality of law enforcers in relation to the protesters.

And here is a veiled call to go die for the curators of Belomaidan: “The first Christians dreamed of dying for Christ. And our era is ‘be on the safe side’. That is why the holy fathers said that the first Christians would burn zealously, and the latter would adapt." Archbishop Artemy did not explain why confession of faith in Christ is equated with political convictions.

And one could say, what a brave bishop! He was not afraid of either the state or church authorities but spoke out the whole truth. But this seems so only at first glance. If Archbishop Artemy stood for the truth, and not for the oppositionists striving for power, he, like a true shepherd, would be objective. For example, he would also have said that already on the first night of protests from 9 to 10 August 2020, demonstrators threw “Molotov cocktails” at policemen and beat them with sticks; that in a few days more than a hundred law enforcement officers were injured and maimed, that the participants of the Belarusian “auto maidan” made deliberate assaults on law enforcement officers, as a result of which they ended up in hospitals with serious injuries. Archbishop Artemy said nothing of this. As a result, the bishop's "truth" came out somewhat one-sided.

That is, using Orthodox rhetoric, Archbishop Artemy clearly “worked” for the victory of one of the parties in the political confrontation in Belarus – the opposition. But the entire Belarusian Orthodox Church, on the contrary, as befits the Church, called for peace and an end to violence on both sides of the conflict. The then head of the Belarusian Exarchate, Metropolitan Pavel, said: “Let's all stop together, stop this enmity and hatred. Because as soon as passions begin to rage in us, we will not be able to make any right decision. Only calmly, having prayed, having cooled down, having calmed down, we can decide what worries us. Yes, there are questions, but they can and must be resolved not through confrontation, and God forbid that blood is shed again."

On August 15, 2020, a day before Archbishop Artemy in his sermon actually urged to support the overthrow of the legitimate government, the Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Church adopted an Appeal to the people of the Republic of Belarus to end the people’s confrontation, which, in particular, said: “Troubles and division have come to our common home, brother rebelled against brother. The news of street clashes, arrests and beatings testifies to the suffering of a huge number of innocent people involved in the confrontation, and makes children, women and elderly parents shudder. It is already known about two deaths and multiple injuries in the clashes, including law enforcement officers in the line of duty; beaten and maimed in temporary detention facilities. <...> Categorically condemning violence, torture, humiliation, groundless detention, extremism in all its forms and manifestations, lies and treachery, we call on everyone for whom our Motherland, children, relatives and friends are dear, to stop and end the confrontation. <...> We believe and hope that the country's leadership, which is rightfully called upon to respect and protect its people, will stop the violence, hear the voices of the offended and innocent victims during the period of confrontation, and bring those who showed atrocity and cruelty to the lawful Court and condemnation."

The BOC Synod did not make any calls to support the current government. He referred to both "injured in the clashes, including law enforcers" and "beaten and maimed in detention centres".

As you can see, this appeal does not contain any calls to support the current government. The Synod mentions both "wounded in clashes, including law enforcers" and "beaten and maimed in detention centers". The Synod denounces both the brutality of the authorities in the suppression of protests and the violence and lawlessness on the part of the protesters. The Synod calls for peace: “Belarus is a peace-loving country. All of us, who live in this blessed land, must show prudence, unity, dignity, mercy, rationality, genuine Christian love for each other and responsibility for our actions."

On August 25, 2020, Metropolitan Benjamin, who had not been known to anyone before, was appointed as the Exarch of All Belarus instead of Metropolitan Pavel. Upon arrival at the Minsk See, he did not make loud statements but urged his flock to augmented fast and prayer for peace in the country.

"Sent into retirement" 

Despite the failure of the Belarusian opposition to overthrow the legitimate government, Archbishop Artemy did not stop his opposition activities, continuing to plant the ideas of nationalism and autocephalism in his diocese. For example, he in every possible way welcomed the performance by the clergy of his diocese of the Belarusian nationalist anthem “Mahutny Bozha” ("Mighty God"), the cry "Live Belarus" and so on.

However, not everyone in his diocese agreed with this policy of the ruling bishop. In September 2020, the St. Vladimir Orthodox Brotherhood turned to Patriarch Kirill with a letter, which listed facts of the destructive political activities of Archbishop Artemy and had a request: "Replace Archbishop Artemy for us." Abbess Gabriela (Glukhova), the abbess of the Nativity of the Theotokos Stauropegic Convent in Grodno, also did not escape the temptation to join the political struggle, but her words were directed against the activists. On September 17, 2020, she spoke at the women's forum “For Belarus”, where she compared the protesters with “sectarians” and called them “a crowd of madmen” who “like an angry herd were screaming demonic cries all over the city”. Indeed, it is not quite appropriate rhetoric for a clergyman. However, Abbess Gabriel found the strength to realize her mistake, and on September 22, 2020, she apologized to everyone who such words could offend. The corresponding statement was published on the official website of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. But Archbishop Artemy behaved differently.

On October 14, 2020, on the feast of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos, Metropolitan Benjamin arrived with an archpastoral visit to the Grodno diocese and, after the liturgy in the cathedral, delivered a sermon calling for peace and unity, in which, in particular, he said: “Earlier, in my conversation with the clergy, I paid attention to the fact that it is not necessary to sing the chant of a secular nature, which divides our society – “Mahutny Bozha”. Although it has a spiritual coloring, nevertheless, someone rejoices in the performance of this chant, and someone grieves. We have enough other chants that do not divide but unite our society, our parishes. And the concern of each abbot should be about this. And every Christian should make sure that we are one in Christ and are children of God."

The hymn “Mahutny Bozha" was written in 1943, during the Nazi occupation by Natalya Arsenyeva, the wife of the main Belarusian collaborator, Catholic by religion, Franz Kushel. For the first time this hymn was published in the Nazi propaganda «Беларуская газэта » in the same 1943. At the end of May 1944, shortly before the liberation of Belarus from the Nazis, “Mahutny Bozha", it was included in the collection of poems "Сягоньня" and widely published with a circulation of 5,000 copies.

Even though the words of Metropolitan Benjamin were very peaceful, Archbishop Artemy replied boldly from the ambo of the Intercession Cathedral that let the Mother of God herself “show us what our Christian duty is and how we must fulfill it” and that we should not hope for “human supernatural wisdom”, clearly hinting at Metropolitan Benjamin. And after that, a real persecution against the exarch of the BOC began.

The head of the Synodal Information Department of the BOC, Archpriest Sergiy Lepin, his deputy Yevgeny Gromyko, Bishop Deacon Dmitry Pavlyukevich and other clergymen of the Grodno diocese began demonstratively posting the text “Mahutny Bozha” on their social networks. And even earlier, on August 14, 2020, the priests of the Grodno diocese sang this hymn on the steps of the Holy Intercession Cathedral. The priest Alexander Shramko, who was banned from the priesthood, generally began to lecture his exarch: “I must say that by his instructions Metropolitan Benjamin grossly exceeded his authority since the ruling bishop, that is, in this case, Archbishop Artemy, has full ecclesiastical authority on the territory of the diocese. The Metropolitan could advise or agree on something in a private conversation with the bishop, as well as raise the issue at a meeting of the Synod." The Catholic priest Vyacheslav Borok, who demanded that Metropolitan Benjamin apology, also interfered!

As the attempts of Metropolitan Benjamin to pacify Archbishop Artemy were not crowned with success, he was "sent" into retirement with the diplomatic wording "for health reasons".

What's next?

By and large, Archbishop Artemy has two ways: either to obey to the decision of the Synod and stay in Minsk for retirement or to loudly slam the door and go into schism. On June 13, 2021, he gave an interview to Radio Liberty, which contains allusions to both the first and second options for further developments.

On the one hand, Vladyka Artemy, answering a question about his plans, said: “We will live. I have a state pension ... we'll see if it is necessary, I'll get a job as a watchman in the parish."

He also denied accusations of autocephalist sentiments: “We did not even speak of any autocephalous church as in Ukraine. This is generally an unreal thing, all religious buildings in our country belong to the Belarusian Exarchate, and no parish can have a temple of another jurisdiction. This question is not yet ripe even for discussion." Here, however, one should pay attention to the argumentation: autocephaly is impossible not for canonical or religious reasons, but because churches legally belong to the Belarusian Exarchate, and the issue is not ripe for discussion.

But on the other hand, when the Radio Liberty correspondent quoted the co-founder of the BYSOL foundation Andrei Strizhak, who called Archbishop Artemy “an excellent candidate for the post of head of the Orthodox Church in the new Belarus”, as well as Deacon Andrei Kuraev, who said that Vladyka is “the conscience of the Belarusian Church", the archbishop replied rather strangely: "What are you talking about, I will not sleep ... "

Also, Archbishop Artemy spoke very unflatteringly about his successor at the Grodno See, saying that he “by his behaviour feels like a chief prosecutor” and is a man “of this world”, criticized the BOC, saying that “we have become a church of the period of stagnation, < ...> We are already surpassing the Khrushchev times when the commissioner passed his will on how to live to parishes and what to say" and stated that his displacement "happened at the behest of the state".

Time will show which path Vladyka Artemy will choose. Filaret Denisenko in 1992, in rather similar circumstances, chose a schism but then this decision was supported (and possibly initiated) by the President of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk. The situation in Belarus is different now.

We would very much like to believe that not political setup but ecclesiastical consciousness will not allow Archbishop Artemy to fall from the Church and take the path of schism.

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