Over at Belarus Digest, Vadzim Smok’s article of the 7th of January takes a look at national identity in Belarus through the prism of the two largest religious denominations, Orthodox Christianity and the much smaller Roman Catholic Church.
The Belarusian state officially recognises two confessions – the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches – as the most legitimate and important. Orthodox believers celebrate Christmas on 7 January by the Julian calendar, whereas Catholics celebrate Christmas on 25 December by the Gregorian calendar.
Through centuries of coexistence of many confessions, Belarusians have developed a distinct tolerance towards various religions. However, today these two main confessions have different positions and political backgrounds in relations with the Belarusian authorities. They also pursue different policies towards the use of the Belarusian language in church.
Orthodoxy was the first Christian confession that came to the territory of contemporary Belarus in the 10th century. The Catholic Church appeared here in the 14th century, when Belarus’ territories constituted the core of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Grand Duchy presented a very interesting country religion-wise. Here, various Christian churches coexisted with each other and with Islam and Judaism, as well as with elements of paganism.
Throughout the country’s history, no major conflict has happened between the two biggest churches of Belarus, despite the dominance of one or the other during various historical periods. One or another church’s prevalence depended on the domination of either Russia or Poland in local affairs.
In towns and villages, Catholic and Orthodox churches often stood side by side. A family could celebrate Catholic Christmas on 25 December, and two weeks later join the celebration at their Orthodox friends or neighbours. In independent Belarus, the authorities decided to preserve this good tradition of religious coexistence and set both dates as official holidays.
According to official figures, around 60 per cent of Belarusians today claim to be believers. However, Orthodox Christians appear less religious than Catholics or Protestants. 18 per cent of Orthodox Christians report to be attending church regularly, while 50 per cent of Catholics do so. Most Catholics reside in the western part of Belarus, especially on the borders with Lithuania and Poland. They have a particular identity, more west-oriented, and often call themselves “Poles”, though hardly any of them can speak Polish.