It is the 16th of November 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 2002.
Depending on how old you are, the year 2002 was either a lifetime ago, or it feels like it just happened, or it feels like it just happened until you remember what happened, and then you realize it was a lifetime ago. It was, in fact, only about 6,500 days since 2002. That's 88 dog years and a lifetime for Angels fans who last won a World Series in 2002. We entered a new millennium with a Cold War in the rearview and the dream of peace seemingly attainable. Of course, by 2002 everything had changed.
In America and much of the Western world, attention had shifted to the threat of radical Islamic terrorism instead of the old model of antagonisms seen in the USA and USSR. But while the west may have averted its gaze for a period, the states that made up the USSR were going through radical change, growing pains, and conflict.
One of the more shocking events in the former Soviet Union, in modern-day Belarus, occurred on this, the 16th of November in 2002. Despite a full thaw in the Cold War and religious freedoms granted, President Lukashenko of Belarus enacted a new and sweeping law restricting religious freedom. The law went into effect on this day in 2002.
To get to this new law, which is still an international story. Let's talk about Belarus! It was one of the three Slavic republics that made up the USSR and Russia, and Ukraine. Belarus was the smallest of the three and was established in 1919.
It has long been an important bridge between the east and the west. The Belarusian and Russian Orthodox church would have predominance in the area, but Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Lutherans also had predominance. When Belarus became its socialist republic in the USSR, it officially banned all forms of religion. While Marx and Lenin were not fans of any religion, it was the organized church that frightened them the most. It wasn't just that Soviet leaders might have thought religion was superstitious and foolish. Instead, it was the power of the church, which necessitated its destruction. The church as an institution was crushed, but the faithful continued to meet underground.
By the time of Mikhail Gorbachev and the "restructuring" of the USSR in the 1980s, the Belarusian church began to peek out from decades of oppression. By the time the USSR fell, the former Soviet republic had legalized religious activity recognized by international human rights organizations. The ebb and flow of the church since then has been a story across the region. But it is Belarus that deserves our attention today.
The man who brought Belarus into independence as its first president was Alexander Lukashenko. If you're following the unrest in Belarus today, yes, that's the same guy. Known by some as "Europe's Last Dictator," he initially welcomed freedom of religion. A nationalist, however, he became wary of non-native church workers. New religious movements spread, and the largest Christian movement was Pentecostal Christianity.
Pentecostalism's massive growth in previously under-churched or oppressed regions is a fascinating story, the affluent and well off rarely convert to an egalitarian and emotive expression of Christianity.
To curb the religious freedom that had been granted, Lukashenko allowed the Orthodox Church to draft what would become the 2002 law amending religious freedom. While the language remained vague in some instances, it gave the orthodox church the ability to reject any registering religious organization. And all religious organizations had to re-register by 2004. While the state hasn't wielded the repressive power it once had, it seems to have done so now through the national church, which receives its funding from Lukashenko's government.
Since August of this year, over 100,000 Belarusians have crowded in Minsk's city center to protest what international organizations have called a massive campaign of voter fraud, followed by a nationwide internet blackout. The political affairs are far from settled, but the Christian church's role, especially Baptist, independent, and Pentecostal, has been clear. They aren't going anywhere. And this despite the turmoil and tumult of political wars. The church's growth in this former Soviet republic just maybe on account of one of the most repressive laws regulating religion in the modern west, which went into effect on this, the 16th of November in 2002.
The reading for today comes from another of the church's persecuted. This from the martyr Oscar Romero from his "The Violence of Love."
"Let us not forget: we are a pilgrim church, subject to misunderstanding, to persecution, but a church that walks serene, because it bears the force of love."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 16th of November 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who thought Borscht, Draniki, and Kletski were a law firm and not popular Belarusian foods, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. Remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.