Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church:
A Brief History

  1. 988-1385: Early Development
  2. 1385-1596: Struggle for Survival
  3. 1596-1839: In Partial Union with Rome
  4. 1839-1922: In Moscow's Captivity
  5. 1922-1942: Between World Wars
  6. 1942-present: Reborn at Last

Note on the names used in the text:
Belarus is the present-day name of historical Lithuania. Although the origin of the name "Lithuania", or "Litva" in its native pronunciation and transcription, is still debated, there is no doubt at all that the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a Slavic state in which the old Belarusian language and culture along with the Orthodox faith were dominant. It should be noted that the present-day Republic of Lithuania, or "Letuva", constitutes only a small province of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania and until the beginning of the twentieth century was known as Samogitia. The use of name "Byelorussia" was forced upon the ancient Lithuanian nation by the Russians after the annexation of Lithuania at the end of the 18th century, and the name Lithuania was assumed by the province of Samogitia. For more information on the genesis of "Belarus" and related names see "Litva, Belaja Rus',..."

988-1385: Early Development

The 1000-year old Belarusian Orthodox Church traces its roots to the baptism of Kiev-Rus'. In 988, Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev, who had examined several different religions including Latin Christianity, chose the Orthodox faith and was baptized by Orthodox clergy from Constantinople.

Though Belarusians have little or no historical connection to the Rus' tribe(they being one of the peoples now called Ukrainians), the Orthodox faith quickly spread to the people of the existing Belarusian principalities. The baptism of Princess Rahneda of Polatsk, wife of Grand Prince Vladimir, and their son Izjaslau' along with the establishment of the episcopal See of Polatsk in 992 are just two of many indications of that growth.

The Orthodox faith accepted from Kiev-Rus' came to be known by the native name of ruskaya vera or "Rus' faith" and its adherents were often referred to as ruskiye lyudi, or "Rus' people". though they had no particular connection to the historical Rus' tribe.

During its early development, the Orthodox Church in the Belarusian principalities was a part of the Church administration headed by the Metropolitan of Kiev. According to Orthodox Canon Law, Metropolitans (i.e. heads of regional or national churches) within the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople were to be elected by local or regional synods with confirmation by the Patriarch. Though the Patriarch frequently appointed Metropolitans, the Church in Kiev did enjoy a great measure of autonomy.

With the unification of Belarusian principalities into the centralized and powerful the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the civil authorities exhibited increasing interest in the well-being of the Orthodox Church as the stabilizing factor in the life of the state and became especially concerned when, after the Mongol destruction of Kiev in 1240, the Kievan Metropolitans abandoned Kiev eventually moving to Moscow.

In response, the rulers of Lithuania gained from the Patriarch of Constantinople the appointment of the separate Metropolitan for the Orthodox Church of Lithuania, who was installed in 1316 in Novahradak. This autonomous Metropolitanate, which, in addition to Novahradak, included the eparchies of Polatsk and Turau was accorded the 82nd place by the Ecclesiastical Synod in Constantinople. The Orthodox Church of Lithuania had its own Metropolitans who, when Kiev itself became a part of Lithuania, bore the title "Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus'". The Church continued its steady growth and development until the calamitous year of 1385.

1385-1596: Struggle for Survival

The ill-advised Act of Union between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland dealt a disastrous blow to the Orthodox Church of Lithuania. The Union, the personal union of dynastic houses, was reached in order to thwart the advances of the German Teutonic Knights. One of the provisions of the Act required the Grand Duke Jacob (formerly Jahajla) of Lithuania, a baptized Orthodox Christian, and the rest of his dynasty and the nobility, to be baptized in the Latin Roman Church.

The result of the Act of Union was the intrusion of the Roman Church into the religious and the temporal affairs of Lithuania. The Orthodox Church, which had spread the true Apostolic faith without coercion or compulsion, was faced with a rival that had no qualms in using whatever means necessary to gain power and influence.

After the death of Metropolitan Kyprian in 1413, the Patriarch of Constantinople sent Photius to be the Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus'. Metropolitan Photius, preferring the centralized Moscow to democratic Lithuania, fled to Moscow. In response, Grand Duke Vitaut of Lithuania and the Orthodox bishops, demanded that the Patriarch appoint another Metropolitan. The Patriarch remained silent and so Metropolitan Ryhor(Tsamblak) was elected by a Sobor(Council) held in Navahradak in 1415. The Patriach made no attempt to remove Metropolitan Ryhor recognizing autonomy of the Metropolitanate of Lithuania. Thus the Orthodox Metropolia of Lithuania became autocephalous (self-governing).

The Roman Church, unable to gain the adherence of the Orthodox faithful, forced the government to pressure Metropolitan Ryhor to attend a Roman Council in Konstanz in 1418. At this council an attempt was made to unite the Orthodox Church of Lithuania with Rome. The Metropolitan refused and was forced to resign upon his return to Lithuania. These intrusions did not pass unnoticed by the growing power to the east, Moscow, which began to assert itself as the sponsor and defender of Orthodoxy in Lithuania and throughout eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, in 1448, a meeting of bishops in Moscow elected its bishop Iona to be "Metropolitan of Moscow" without Patriarchal approval. The siege and subsequent fall of Constantinople in 1453 prevented the Patriarch from responding.

Pressure on Orthodox hierarchs by the Poles and Roman Church authorities continued unabated. King Kasimir of Poland, in 1481, forbade building or even repair of Orthodox churches in the Polish-Lithuanian state. The Polish kings granted Orthodox churches, monasteries and Church property to Catholic lay people and nobility.

Meanwhile, to the east, the Muscovites in 1514 occupied Smalensk and in 1513, following the Livonian War, occupied Polatsk, both of which where principal cities of the Lithuanian nation.

Poland took advantage of Lithuania's weakened position to annex the province of Padlassa and the Ukrainian possessions of Lithuania. Seeing themselves under attack from both sides Lithuania had no choice but to agree to the Union of Lyublin with Poland in 1569. Though the Union formally ended the independence of Lithuania, the Grand Duchy remained a separate entity within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and defended and preserved its autonomy to the end.

1596-1839: In Partial Union with Rome

Pressure on the Orthodox hierarchy of Lithuania for union with Rome rose dramatically following the Union of Lublin. With the establishment of the Patriarchate in Moscow in 1589, and the expected new pressure from Moscow, the Union of Bierascie(Brest Litovsk) was forged in October 1596 which created the Uniate church. The Union was expected to raise the social status of the Orthodox, but since most of the upper class had already become fully polonized and Roman Catholic, the anticipated reprieve was not realized for even the Uniate church was prosecuted and proselitized by fanatic Latin-rite Catholics under the leadership of Jesuits.

In 1620, Patriarch Theophan of Jerusalem restored an Orthodox hierarchy for Lithuania and Ukraine. Seeking a moderation in the terror against the Orthodox populace in order to gain support for his war with Moscow, Polish king Wladyslaw IV issued the "Points of Contentment" in 1632, which recognized the rights of those who remained Orthodox. Because it was considered harmful to Catholicism, Pope Urban VIII urged its rejection by Latin and Uniate Catholics alike, and the oppression continued unabated.

The Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654, between Moscow and the Ukrainian Cossacks, gave Moscow the opening required to begin its march into Lithuania and Ukraine as anti-Orthodox persecution raged out of control in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Belarusian language was outlawed in public life. Those who converted from Catholicism could receive the death penalty; non-Catholics were not permitted to serve in the legislature, courts or any other official commission or committee. Spokesmen for non-Catholics were considered enemies of the state.

The Polish Seim (parliament) forbade the Orthodox to be in contact with the Patriarch of Constantinople forcing them to look for Moscow. The primary effect of the Union of Lublin and its resultant massive persecution of the Orthodox in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was to encourage Moscow to undertake its mission of imperialism under the pretext of defending Orthodoxy.

In 1886, the Muscovite Church has formally annexed the Ukrainian and Lithuanian Churches with payment of 120 saber furs and 200 pieces of gold to the Patriarch of Constantinople, Dionisios IV, who was deprived of his office for this un-canonical transfer. Though the annexation was annulled, political realities prevented any further action from being taken.

At the end of the 18th century, faced with extinction, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth began a series of internal reforms aimed at diminishing religious and social oppression, along with making improvements in economic and military spheres.

Following the passage of these somewhat more liberal laws by the parliament, a General Council of the Orthodox Church of Lithuania assembled in the city of Pinsk on June 15, 1791 and re-established the independent Orthodox Metropolitanate of Lithuania. But this re-establishment was to be short-lived.

The partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in three phases from 1772-1795 by Russia, Prussia, and Austria put an end to the historical Grand Duchy of Lithuania and also to the native Orthodox Church of Lithuania. The Church ceased to exist not on the basis of Canon Law, but only by reason of physical force.

1839-1922: In Moscow's Captivity

At first, there was a sense of relief when the compulsion to belong to the Uniate church disappeared. But it quickly became abundantly clear that the Russians never intended to restore the native Orthodox Church of Lithuania; instead, they replaced the Uniate Metropolia with the Russian Orthodox Church, which at the time of Peter I(1682-1725) had become a department of the Muscovite state.

During the Napoleonic campaign against Russia in 1812, at attempt was made to break from Muscovite subjugation by Archbishop Varlaam (Shishacki) of Mahilou. Following the retreat of the French army, Archbishop Varlaam was stripped of his episcopal rank and held in complete isolation in a monastery until his death.

The liquidation of the Uniate church in 1839 spelled another disaster for Lithuania, for even though it had absorbed many Latin Catholic accretions, its mere presence for 250 year gave it a place in the Lithuanian society.

The Russians decided to eradicate all sense of a separate national identity in the former Lithuania: they forbade the use of the term Lithuania, or "Litva", introducing instead the new name "Byelorussia" which they soon replaced with the designation "North-West Region". The Church was completely russified: prayer-books and theological writings were destroyed. The people had to choose either russification in the Russian Orthodox Church or polonization in the Roman Catholic Church. The native Orthodox Church was no longer a choice.

1922-1942: Between World Wars

Belarus proclaimed its independence in 1918 following the Bolshevik revolution. Not destined to last long, the nation was divided by its more powerful neighbors, the newly-formed Soviet Union and Poland, at the Treaty of Riga in March. 1921.

Eastern Belarus came under Soviet control. On July 23, 1922, at a Sobor in Miensk, the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Metropolia was resurrected, separate from the Patriarch of Moscow and the Pope of Rome, with Metropolitan Melchisedek, formerly a hierarch of the Muscovite Church, as Primate. Arrested soon after the Sobor, Metropolitan Melchisedek was murdered in 1927 in Moscow, a fate that awaited two of the other bishops, Mikalay and Ivan. On August 9-10, 1927 Bishop Philaret called for a second Sobor, which confirmed the independence of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. The Church continued until 1938 when its destruction by Bolsheviks was completed.

Western Belarus came under Polish occupation. The influx of pro-czarist Russian refugees quickly took over the Orthodox Church and used it as an improved tool of russification. Under Polish pressure, the Orthodox Church in Poland, which covered most of the lands that had been part of the autonomous Metropolias of Kiev and Navahradak, was granted autocephaly by the Patriach of Constantinople in 1924 in order to extricate it from Russian domination. Attempts to force the Polish Orthodox Church to unite with Rome failed, and severe persecutions of the Orthodox ensued. Parishes were disbanded, churches closed, properties seized, and the entire system of the Belarusian education was destroyed.

The Polish state again seized to exist after September, 1939, being divided by the Soviet Union and Germany. With the Soviet occupation the nearly all of Belarus, the Orthodox Church faced harsh and cruel persecution by the Bolsheviks. The Autocephaly of the former Polish Orthodox Church created only a small problem for Moscow: each of the hierarchs was forced to vow his allegiance to the Muscovite Patriarch. Two of the hierarchs did not obey and did not go to Moscow: Archbishops Polikarp(Sikorsky) and Aleksander(Inozemtsev).

1942-present: Reborn at Last

In June, 1941 the Germans swept across Belarus, allowing the reorganization of Belarusian life and the restoration of the independent Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church(BAOC). On August 30, 1942, a Sobor was held in Minsk, which reaffirmed the autocephalous status of the Belarusian Church and chose Metropolitan Panteleiman, a hierarch formerly part of the Muscovite Church, as Primate. When in 1944 the Russians reoccupied Belarus, those who had participated for revival of BAOC were sought out for immediate liquidation. Churches which had been restored or newly-built were closed or used for non-religious purposes. All of the hierarchs emigrated to the West to avoid certain death.

Once safely in the West, the pro-Russian-oriented hierarchy of BAOC orphaned the church joining the Russian Church in Exile in 1946. Followign this betrayal Belarusian Orthodox believers Seeking canonical help for the restoration of the hierarchy have petitioned the Ukranian Autocephalous Orthodox Church(UAOC) was petitioned, and its Primate, Metropolitan Polikarp(Sykorsky), permitted Bishop Sjarhej(Okhotenko), to take BAOC under its spiritual care. Bishop Sjarhej received canonical ordination at the hands of Archbishops Mykhayil(Khoroshyj) and Hennadij and Bishop Volodymyr on August 1, 1943. (Archbishop Mykhayil was later Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Canada, which is recognized by the Oeccumenical Patriarchate as canonical.)

On June 5, 1948, Bishop Sjarhej called the first Sobor of the BAOC abroad in Konstanz, Germany, which again restored the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and elected Archimandrit Vasil(Tamashchyk) to be bishop. On December 19, 1949, Archimandrit Vasil was ordained bishop to assist Archbishop Sjarhej in the administration of the canonically reinstated BAOC.

As Belarusians in the Displaced Person camps migrated from Germany and settled permanently overseas, they established parishes in their new homelands: England, Belgium, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Archbishop Sjarhej went to Australia, and Bishop Vasil emigrated to the United States.

In 1968 two bishops were ordained, including Bishop Andrey(Kryr) who was ordained by Archbishop Sjarhej and Bishop Dmitrije of the canonical Free Serbian Orthodox Church(now called the New Gracanica Metropolitanate of the Serbian Patriarchal Church). Following the deaths of Archbishops Vasil in 1970 and Sjarhej in 1971, the second Sobor of BAOC was called abroad in New Jersey in 1972 to choose a new Primate for the BAOC. Archbishop Andrej was elected and granted the title Metropolitan, signifying once again the full restoration of the historic Orthodox Metropolia of Lithuania.

The present Primate of BAOC, His Eminence, Metropolitan Iziaslav, was ordained to the episcopacy on February 22, 1981 by Metropolitan Andrey, along with Metropolitan(later Patriarch) Mstyslav and Archbishop Orest of the UAOC. Succeeding Metropolitan Andrey, who died in May, 1983, Metropolitan Iziaslav was elected Primate at the third Sobor of the BAOC abroad, in May, 1984 in Manchester, England.

Difficulties continued to beset BAOC and its faithful abroad. The division of the Cathedral community in New York by a Soviet agent in 1968 and the schizm created in 1980 by the former Archbishop in Toronto, who was deposed in February, 1983, have reduced its numerical strength.

Despite its many tribulations the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church has always remained a beacon of hope for the people of Belarus. In a Belarus free from foreign domination and control, the BAOC may take its rightful place, offering to the much-suffering Belarusian people the balm of authentic Apostolic Orthodox Christianity in their own language and with their own pious Orthodox traditions.

Information based on Peter Mankouski's brochure "1000 years of Christianity in Byelorussia" supplied by the St. Cyril's Cathedral of the BAOC, 401 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn, NY, 11217

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