Religion

Statue of Jesus in Ivye Belarus

Belarus is a country with many denominations. There are currently 26 different denominations represented in Belarus, of which 15 are variations of Protestantism. The Orthodox Church has the absolute majority of believers, with 1224 congregations, followed by the Evangelical Church with 491 congregations and the Catholic Church with 432. Islam is represented with 27 communities and Judaism with 25. In addition, there are also United Catholics, Lutherans, followers of Krishna and many other denominations.

Monument of Religions Ivye Belarus

Monument of Religions in Ivye | Photo: Benny Reiter

This religious diversity stems from the very origins of Belarusian history. Present-day White Russia lies at the crossroads of two contrasting traditions and cultures. East meets West and traditions intermingle.

Paganism was the only religion in Belarus up till the 10th century and despite numerous endeavours by local princes, it co-existed with Christianity for a very long time. Many heathen customs, for example festivals such as Maslitsa, Kalyady or Kupala are still part of Belarusian culture today. In 988, Grand Duke Vladimir I had himself baptised according to the Byzantine rite and proclaimed Christianity to be the state religion. This political move enabled the Grand Duke to tighten the bond with the Byzantine imperial dynasty.

Following the baptism of Vladimir I, numerous cathedrals were built and over time many Belarusian believers joined the Byzantine Orthodox Church. The first bishopric in Polotsk was founded in 992.  In the East Slavonic areas, the structure of the Orthodox Church was adopted which meant that the religious community developed into a social institution in its own right.

In the year 1472, the ecumenical patriarch, the Orthodox Bishop of Constantinople, recognised the Orthodox Church of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania canonically.

Between the 13th and the 16th centuries approximately 40 Orthodox churches and monasteries were built, which developed into the most important centres of religious life, education and icon painting.

When the Church Union of Brest was concluded in 1596, hard times came upon the Orthodox Church in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Union prescribed that the Orthodox Church should conform to the Catholic faith. The service based on Byzantine tradition was allowed in Slavonic languages. Furthermore, the Orthodox Church had to acknowledge the Pope. Not all believers were ready to take this step. Consequently, there was a division in the Church which resulted in the followers of the Orthodox faith being persecuted. This turmoil in the history of the Church brought about the creation of a new denomination: the confession of the United Catholics. Although they are believers in the Catholic faith, they are closely affiliated in their traditions to the Orthodox Church.

In the year 1632, the Orthodox faith was recognised once again in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and in Poland. Directly after being sanctioned by the government, four eparchies (eparchy: diocese of the Orthodox Church) were founded in the Ukrainian towns Lutz and Lviv, the Polish town of Przemysl and the Belarusian town of Mogilev. From the middle of the 17th century, the diocese of Mogilev was the only one in the Republic of Poland (Rzeczpospolita) alias Poland-Lithuania. Despite Poland being partitioned three times, nothing could stop the rapid development of the Orthodox Church, which had substantial influence in the Russian Empire. In 1914, there were already 3552 Orthodox Churches and 35 monasteries in Belarus.

The influence of the Orthodox Church in society dwindled with the October Revolution of 1917 and like all other denominations it was subjected to terrible repression in the 1930s. Churches were closed and some turned into cinemas, archives and party organisations. By the time the Second World War broke out, not a single place of worship was open to the public in Minsk. Priests of all confessions were persecuted and often exiled.

It was not until the 1980s that a revival began and in 1989 the White Russian exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate was founded.

Going by the number of believers, the Roman Catholic is the second largest confession in Belarus. Catholicism was mentioned for the first time in Belarus at the end of the 14th century, when the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, Jogaila, founded the diocese of Vilnius in 1387. This covered nearly the entire area of Belarus. By the middle of the 16th century, 259 rectories had been founded and the first Catholic orders of monks came into being: the Franciscans (Lida, Ashmjany, Minsk), the Augustinians (Brest) and the Bernardines (Polotsk). Between the 16th and the 18th century there were 18 monastic orders and seven convent orders in Belarus, of which the Catholic Society of Jesus, alias Jesuits, was the most prominent. Not only did this religious order develop a progressive schooling system but it also initiated an extensive network of different schools on different educational levels. One of the educational centres of the Order was the Academy of Polotsk, which was one of the most important educational institutions in Europe. In the year 1773, the Pope disbanded the Order, but Catherine the Great allowed it to continue ministering in the Russian Empire. Although the Order and its institutions were banned in the Russian Empire in 1820, its traces can still be found in Belarus of today.

Church of the Bernardines in Budslau Belarus

Church of the Bernardines in Budslau | Photo: Benny Reiter

The Bernardine Order also played an important role in Belarus. Its legacy can be found to this day in the little village of Budslau, where the Church of the Assumption is still run by monks of the Bernardine Order. Despite its proximity to the front line, the church survived the First World War. It bears the honorary title “minor basilica” which is conferred by the Pope himself to important church buildings. In the church, there is an icon of the Virgin Mary, which supposedly works wonders and protects the village and the building itself from misfortune. Budslau attracts many pilgrims from White Russia, Poland, Russia, Lithuania and other countries thanks to this icon and its history. The wooden altar which is early baroque and dates from the 17th century likewise attracts many believers to Budslau from numerous countries.

After Belarus was annexed to the Russian Empire in 1773, the first Belarusian diocese was founded in Mogilev. As Catholic priests actively participated in the national freedom movement in the 19th century, they were persecuted by the tsarist government and as a result the Catholic faith was banned. After the October Revolution of 1917, the situation of the Catholic Church differed little from that of the Orthodox Church. Both denominations suffered considerably. In the western part of Belarus, which belonged to Poland, the situation was very different. The Catholic faith was deeply-rooted here, which was why many Catholic priests from Russia fled there.

A Belarusian diocese was founded again in the 1980s and since 1991 there are three Roman Catholic dioceses in Belarus, namely in Grodno, Minsk and Pinsk. According to the latest figures, there are 438 congregations in Belarus.

The Reformation also had an impact on Belarus. The most influential movement of the Reformation was Calvinism. The first congregation came into being in Brest in 1533. The Calvinist communities opened schools, hospitals and printing workshops and in 1565, the religious movement was put on the same footing as the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches. Nicholas Radziwill, also called the Black, was considered to be the religious leader of Calvinism. He aimed to unite the Shlachta – the Polish landed gentry – through faith.

Judaism was first recognised as a religious denomination in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1389, when the Grand Duke Vytautas granted the Jews of Grodno a privilege. This stated that the synagogue and the cemetery where exempt from tax from this time on.

The majority of followers of Islam were from the Tatar population. When the Tatar Khan Tokhtamish was conquered by Timur Khan in 1395, the former found refuge in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Grand Duke Vytautas offered Khan Tokhtamish and his courtiers protection and settled them in the town of Lida.

In return for helping Vytautas fight against the crusaders, the Tatars were allowed to bring their families to Belarus and so Islam came to Belarus. In 1591, there were approximately 100,000 Tatars, most of them Sunnis, in Belarus. Yet, the number of Tatar muslims in Belarus sank to about 30,000 in the 18th century. In order to preserve their culture, the Tatars formed segregated groups, with their largest community being in Ivje.

Discover the diversity of religions in Belarus on our Circular tour of Belarus and pay a visit to the town of Ivje and its inhabitants.

05/04/2016
Orthodox wooden church Belarus

Christianity came to Belarus after the Grand Duke Vladimir had himself baptised according to the Byzantine rite in 988 and proclaimed Christianity to be the state religion. The diocese of Polotsk was founded in 992 and Polotsk became the centre of Christianisation on Belarusian territory. Subsequently, other principalities also converted to the Byzantine Orthodox Church. Today, Orthodoxy is the most widespread denomination in the country. According to the last official census in 2010, almost half the population (about 4.5 million) are members of the Orthodox Church. In other words, the Belarusian Orthodox Church unites over three-quarters of all believers in the country. In 1989, the exarchate of the Belarusian Orthodox Church was founded, under the auspices of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Metropolitan Paul has been patriarch of Belarus since 2013. There are 10 dioceses in the exarchate of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. In all, there are 1159 Orthodox Churches in Belarus and at the present time there are over 180 churches under construction. The Belarusian Orthodox Church also has five seminaries under its authority.

Below are some of the most important religious festivals in the Orthodox Church:

  • Mariä-Schutz Church in Grodno Hrodna Belarus

    Mariä-Schutz Church in Grodno | Photo: Benny Reiter

    Christmas (7thJanuary)

  • Baptism of Jesus (19thJanuary)
  • Presentation of Jesus in the temple (15thFebruary)
  • Annunciation Day (7thApril)
  • Palm Sunday
  • Easter
  • Ascension Day
  • Whitsun
  • Transfiguration of Jesus (19thAugust)
  • Assumption Day (28thAugust)
  • Nativity of the Blessed Virgin (21stSeptember)
  • Feast of the cross (27thSeptember)
  • Presentation of Mary in the temple (4thDecember)

On the basis of the Church Union of Brest, the United (Roman Catholic) Church was formed in the year 1596 and played an important role in the history of the country. The Church Union was a merging of the Roman Catholic Church with the Orthodox bishops of Poland-Lithuania who were under the control of the Constantinople Patriarchate. The aim was to safeguard Orthodoxy against the influence of the Moscow Patriarchate. At the height of its expansion in the 17th and 18th centuries, it covered all of Belarus and parts of Russia, Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine.

Catholic brick church Braslau lakes Belarus

Catholic brick church | Photo: Anna Kovaliova

In accordance with the Church Union, Orthodox believers from Poland-Lithuania had to recognise the fundamental dogmas of Catholicism and the authority of the Pope. Metropolitans could only be elected with the approval of the Vatican. Services could only be held in Church Slavonic. All possessions of the Orthodox Church were appropriated by the United Church.

These changes met with widespread opposition, which was frequently countered with force by the authorities. The struggle between United Catholics and the Orthodox Church continued to smoulder. On account of its privileges, the United Church prevailed over the Orthodox Church and over time a gradually increasing majority of the population on Belarusian territory (75%) became members of the United Church. In 1794, Catherine the Great’s Church Union was revoked. Members of the United Church were often cruelly persecuted by the tsarist regime and many consequently reverted to Orthodoxy. It was not until the “Edict of toleration”, issued by Tsar Nicholas II in 1905, that United Catholics could openly profess their faith. The United Church experienced a hard time once again during the period of the Soviet Union and only after its collapse was the Church able to emerge from illegality. As of 1994, Jan Sergei Gajek has been archimandrite of the Belarusian United Catholics. The office of overall head of the Belarusian United Church is not filled, but Jan Sergei Gajek acts in this capacity.

According to figures from the year 2008, about 10,000 United Catholics live in Belarusia and are divided into fifteen official rectories. A further ten congregations could not be registered yet, on account of certain peculiarities of the Belarusian legal system. There are only two Greek Catholic churches in Belarusia, namely in Polotsk and Mogilev. Greek Catholic centres have been established in some towns. Services are normally held in Belarusian.

It is estimated that there are 2,000 Belarusian United Catholics living in the diaspora today, with congregations in London, Rome, Prague, Warsaw, Kaliningrad and Chicago.

After the schism in the Russian Orthodox Church in the middle of the 17th century, many Old Believers (or Old Ritualists) came to Belarus from Russia. They did not accept the reforms and innovations introduced by the Orthodox Patriarch Nikon and distanced themselves from them demonstratively. Their main concern was to preserve the faith of their forebears. From then on, conservative Orthodox believers were called Old Believers. Despite living in different ethnic and cultural surroundings, the Old Believers retained their cultural traditions in Belarus. The little town of Vietka, in the south-east of Belarus near Gomel, became their centre. There were various subdivisions and ramifications in the confession, but differences faded in the course of time.

What is the difference between the Orthodox Church and Old Believers today? Basically the Old Believers have retained religious traditions in the same form as they were at the time when the Kiever Rus was formed in 988. The most significant liturgical differences are the following:

  • Old Believers only acknowledge the eight-pointed cross. On the other hand, the Russian Orthodox Church also tolerates the four-pointed cross. For the Old Believers, the four-pointed cross is a symbol of heresy (a conception of faith which deviates from official church teaching)
  • the Old Believers always kneel when praying
  • the Old Believers make the sign of the cross with two fingers (the Orthodox believers with three)
  • Old Believer processions move in a clockwise direction (in the Orthodox Church anti-clockwise)
  • Old Believers write Christ’s name Isus (Iсусь), the Orthodox Church Iisus (Iисусь)
  • Old Believers have two saints more than the Orthodox Church: Avvakum Petrov und Paul of Kolomna

As can be seen, the Old Believers venerate their own cultural and habitual symbols. The icon painting school of Vietka is particularly renowned. Its painters combined ancient traditions with new elements in their works. One peculiarity of the Vietka icons was that they were studded with pearls. The mountings were mainly silver- or gold-plated.

Even the cuisine of the Old Believers was different to the Belarusian as it included hallmarks of Russian cuisine. However, over time and despite their conservatism, the Old Believers took a liking to the local cuisine. Nowadays Old Believers and Belarusians have identical dishes but with different names. Tobacco and alcohol used to be prohibited, while tea and coffee were considered unclean.

The Old Believers’ wedding traditions are also extremely interesting and differ from those of the Orthodox Church. The blessing by the priest is replaced by the blessing of the parents. On the one hand the wedding is considered as sacred, whereas on the other hand it is considered as sinful. Unmarried young people are not allowed to take part at wedding ceremonies.

Apart from New Year, the Old Believers do not celebrate any secular festivities and so New Year celebrations are an extremely popular festivity for Old Believer families.

It is difficult to ascertain how many Old Believers live in Belarus, as many conceal their religion or live in remote areas. According to data from the Pomorian Old Orthodox Church, there are 38 Old Believer congregations in Belarus (both registered and not). These have a combined number of 50,000 members. From year to year, the number of Old Believers declines, not only in Belarus but also worldwide. The young have lost interest in religion and many people migrate to towns where they lose touch with their identity which is rooted in village structures. But the greatest problem is that the Old Believers adhere strictly to their dogmas, which is increasingly hard to do in a modern, ever-changing world.

The Reformation in Belarus developed in the same direction and approximately at the same time as in Western Europe. The first Lutheran Church was built in Brest in 1553, but no longer exists today. The first congregations were founded by the Germans. Most Lutherans came from Germany or have German roots.

Evangelical Lutheran Church Polotsk Polatsk Belarus

Evangelical Lutheran Church | Photo: Anna Kovaliova

The first Lutheran congregation in post-Soviet times was founded in the year 1993. Until 1998 the organisation of the Lutheran congregations in the various regions of Belarus was largely uncoordinated. Some joined the ELCROS community (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Central Asia). In the summer of 1999 ELCROS nominated Pastor Leonid Tsviki from Vitebsk as deputy of the Bishop in Belarus. However, many congregations wanted to remain independent and founded the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Republic of Belarus together. ELCROS rejected this completely. Therefore a schism occurred and in 2004 the independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Republic of Belarus was founded and it now has 11 member congregations.

The congregations are relatively uncommunicative and therefore there are no precise details about the number of believers.

Go on a journey with us and discover the traces of Christian history in Belarus.

05/04/2016
Holy Scripture of the Jews Belarus

The first Jews settled on the territory of what is now White Russia in the 14th century, at the time of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. During that time, the Jews who came from the Grand Duchy were called “Litvaks”. They differed from other Jewish ethnic groups because of their north-eastern dialect and their own habits and customs.

The first written source recording the presence of Jews on Belarusian territory was a document from Grand Duke Vytautas the Great (dated 1383). In this document, the Jews are mentioned as being an ethnic group. According to law the Jews were a free people in a class of their own in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and were under the direct protection of the Grand Duke and the local authority.

In the 14th and 15th centuries many Jews came to Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from German towns. Entire communities set off into the unknown. They brought their traditions and customs, their trading practices and their educational system. At the end of the 15th century there were more than 20,000 Jews in Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

In the year 1495 there were five towns in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with an established Jewish population: Brest, Grodno, Volodymyr-Volynskyi and Lutz in present-day Ukraine) and Trakai (in present-day Lithuania). In other places, such as Drogichin, Kamenets, Krichev, Minsk and Novogrudok, the Jews only stayed temporarily. At the turn of the 16th century, many Jewish settlements sprang up.

When Alexander the Jagiellon (Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, 1461-1506) was unable to pay his debts back to Jewish moneylenders, he issued a decree expelling all Jews from the territory of the Grand Duchy. As a result, all Jews in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were sent into exile in April 1495. Communities from Brest and Grodno transferred to Poland and some to Lithuanian minor duchies. In 1503, Grand Duke Alexander allowed the Jews to settle in the Grand Duchy again and returned their expropriated possessions to them.

The Grand Duke and King Sigismund the Old (1506-1548) was known as an active protector of the Jews. He introduced numerous laws bolstering the their legal situation. In the main, these laws were related to taxation and authorisations for conducting commerce and trade. At the beginning of the 16th century, the most flourishing Jewish communities were in Brest, Grodno and Pinsk.

In 1551 Belarusian Jews were given the right to choose their own rabbis. Distinguished Jews were considered equal to Polish and Lithuanian gentry. However, in 1529 Lithuanian law banned Jews from owning slaves. Another law in 1566 regulated what Jews should wear: it forbade expensive clothing and gold jewellery. Jews also had to wear yellow hats or caps, to distinguish them from Orthodox citizens. At the end of the 16th century, Stephan Bathory (King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1576) accorded Jews the right to do business in the towns and later on the right to own shops.

The supreme self-administrative body of the Jews in Eastern Europe was the Wa’ad Arba Aratzot (Hebrew for The Council of Four Lands), which existed from the middle of the 16th century till 1764. The Wa’ad Arba’ Aratzot consisted of rabbis and representatives of the regional kehillah (Jewish communities).

In 1654, the war between Russia and Poland began, a source of great misfortune for the Belarusian Jews. They were robbed, murdered and driven out of the Belarusian towns which were conquered by the Russians. After the Khmelnytsky Uprising in the Ukraine in 1648, many Ukrainian Jews fled to Lithuania, but the uprising even spread there. Using swords and fire, the Cossacks destroyed the Jewish communities in Gomel and Pinsk. So they were dark times for the Jews in the region in the second half of the 17th century. They were constantly threatened by Cossack pogroms and Russian troops. About 86,000 Jews fell victim to these marauders.

After Poland had been partitioned three times (1772, 1793, und 1795) the territory of present-day White Russia was annexed to the Russian Empire. Once again Jews were accorded special status in 1775. Later they were allowed to join the merchant class and work in the town administration.

Between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 20th century the settlement area (and consequently the right of abode and the labour laws) of the Jews was limited by the original decree of Catherina II (1791) to the so-called Pale of Settlement. This was the term used for an area in the west of the Russian tsarist empire which had previously belonged to Poland-Lithuania. Soon all Belarusian Jews were to be found in this Pale of Settlement and were not allowed to leave it according to the terms of the decree. Moreover, all Jews had to move into the towns by the year 1825 and were no longer allowed to live in the country.

According to a census in 1897, there were over 900,000 Jews on Belarusian territory, over 21% of that population being in the Pale of Settlement. Their numbers were higher than those in the great Polish diaspora.

Yeshiva in Valoshyn (Volozhin) Belarus

Yeshiva in Valoshyn | Photo: Benny Reiter

There were several important yeshivas (Jewish colleges for studying the torah and the Talmud) in Belarus – in Volozhin, Mir, Slonim and Slutsk. Young Jews from numerous countries were attracted here. The high proportion of Jews among the population can be seen by the number of synagogues that existed: in 1917, there were 83 synagogues in Minsk, 50 in Mogilev, 42 in Bobruisk, 30 in Vitebsk and 26 in Gomel.

The February Revolution of 1917 put an end to the Pale of Settlement; national and denominational restrictions were abolished. All Jewish parties were legalised with immediate effect and began to take part in the political affairs of the country.

The First World War and the Russian Civil War accelerated the urbanisation of Belarusian Judaism, at the same time fuelling a mass exodus. In the second decade of the 20th century the Jews’ economic footing was destroyed as a result of the new economic policy. Thousands of craftsmen and tradesmen lost not only their livelihood but also their civil rights and were disenfranchised.

After the Soviets took over power (1920), Jewish communities were dispersed, Jewish parties dissolved and New Hebrew and studying in the yeshivas was forbidden. Many synagogues were closed. The Soviet authorities introduced the Soviet educational, enlightenment and cultural system for Jews, in Yiddish but without national traditions and national culture. All Jewish periodicals (with the exception of the newspaper “Der Wecker”) were banned. During this period, Yiddish was an official language alongside Belarusian, Russian and Polish.

But despite all this, in the second half of the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s Jewish culture reached a relative climax in Belarus. Belarusian-Jewish culture produced such famous painters as Mark Chagall, Chaim Soutine, Yehuda Pen, Solomon Yudovin and Meyer Axelrod.

Jewish gravestone in the old cemetery in Minsk Belarus

The Jewish cemetery in Minsk | Photo: Anna Kovaliova

At the end of the 1930s, about 400,000 Jews lived in Belarus. After the annexation of western Belarus to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus (1939), the Jewish population increased to about one million. Then the outbreak of the Second World War came, a horrendous catastrophe for Judaism. Between 1941 and 1945, over 950,000 Jews were killed in Belarus, including 85,000 who were deported from Germany, Austria and Hungary. More than 300 ghettos were set up on Belarusian territory. The majority of prisoners from the Minsk and Polotsk ghettos, as well as many Western European Jews, were exterminated in the concentration camp Maly Trostinets near Minsk.

The largest ghetto in Belarus was in Minsk. Today, an imposing monument in memory of the victims stands on the former site of the ghetto. The monument “The Pit” was created in 2000 by Leonid Levin. The bronze sculpture depicts people who are going to their death in the pit.

Despite the repression, antifascist movements started up notwithstanding the terrible conditions in the ghettos. Underground groups operated in the ghettos of Minsk, Baranavichy, Bobruisk, Grodno and other Belarusian towns. In some ghettos there were uprisings on the day before mass shootings. Most of the prisoners who were released joined partisan groups. About ten Jewish partisan divisions fought on the territory of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. In all, 12,000 Jews battled against the enemy in partisan divisions. The period was again characterised by widespread anti-Semitism. The peak of emigration to Israel occurred in the years 1989-1991, during which time about 72,000 people emigrated.

Today, most Jews live in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, although there are communities in other cities. In the meantime there are eleven practising synagogues in Belarus: two each in Minsk, Vitebsk and Mogilev and one each in Pinsk, Brest, Grodno, Bobruisk and Gomel. Altogether 19 rabbis work there.

The official Jewish community in the Republic of Belarus reports that there are 55,000 Jews in the country, half of them living in Minsk.

Diplomatic relations with Israel were started in 1992 and these have gradually grown stronger. Since November 2015, citizens of both countries can visit each other without requiring a visa.

Go on a journey with us and discover the traces of Jewish history in Belarus.

05/04/2016
Mosque in Ivye Belarus

The Tatars have lived on Belarusian soil for about six hundred years, most of them coming from the Crimea and from the steppes of the Volga. Today’s descendants of the Mongolian-Tatar hordes, who originally came to do their military service in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at the behest of Grand Duke Vytautas, are more or less totally assimilated into Belarus society from a language and cultural point of view. To all intents and purposes they have lost their native language, although Arabian is still used when practising their religion. There are exceptional cases of them observing their traditions and keeping their faith and to a large extent their Tatar names. Belarusian Moslems belong almost exclusively to the Sunni faith.

In 1994, the first Belarusian congress for Moslems took place. The outcome was the proclamation of an independent muftiate. The first mufti was Ismail Alexandrovitch. Abu-Bekir Shabanovich has held office since 2005. According to the census of 2009, there are about 30,000 Moslems in Belarus, but this figure is increasing thanks to a moderate Moslem immigration (Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Kurds and Turks). There are thirty Moslem communities registered in Belarus today. Nearly a third of the communities have their own mosques. They are a central gathering place for practising religion and coming together. Most of the mosques are relatively new (end of the 20th century). The mosque in Ivje (built in 1882) is one of the centres of the Moslem faith in Belarus and is considered an important monument of Belarusian wooden architecture.

Its older counterpart, the mosque in Novogrudok (built in 1855) – another place with roots dating back to times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – shares the sad, recent history of many places of worship in Belarus. Believers were allowed to pray in the mosque up until 1953 but then the Bolsheviks confiscated it and turned it into six flats. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the mosque was returned to the community, who converted it back to its original form. All mosques in Belarus were traditionally built of wood, simple in appearance with no special ornaments. The plain external architecture matched the interior. This normally consisted of a prayer room (divided into two halves: the front part for men, the back for women), a mihrab (a prayer niche for the imam) and a minbar (a pulpit from which the imam gives his sermon). There were also minarets, but in Belarus these had more of a decorative or symbolic significance. They usually bore a close resemblance to the bell towers of Belarusian Orthodox and Catholic churches.

A new mosque is currently under construction in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, as the old Minsk mosque – at the time the only one in Belarus to be built of stone – was demolished in the 1960s. At around the same time the misar (Tartar cemetery) was also destroyed. The Great and Little Tatar Streets were renamed. In this way, the Soviet government tried to destroy the Tatars’ ethnic identity. Fortunately, the situation changed in the course of time.

During Perestroika (a process introduced by Mikhail Gorbatschev in 1986 to modernise the Soviet system) numerous laws were passed in connection with freedom of religion and minority rights, providing the requisite legal basis for a cultural revival of the Belarusian Tatars. In 1989, the first Tatar cultural organisations were established in Minsk and Grodno and in the summer of 1991 they merged to form the Association of Tatar Moslems “Al-Kitab”. Another important association was founded in the winter of 1994, the Moslem Religious Association of the Republic of Belarus. These organisations soon started coordinating the activities of the 26 Tatar Moslem communities in Belarus.

As already mentioned, one of the largest Moslem communities in Belarus is to be found in the little town of Ivje. This town is remarkable in as much as four confessions (Orthodox, Catholics, Jews and Moslems) have lived here in harmony, peace and mutual respect for centuries.
 

Wooden mosque in Ivje Ivye Belarus

Wooden mosque in Ivye | Photo: Anna Kovaliova

During the week Moslems pray at home, but come together in the mosque in Ivje on Fridays for a joint service (Salāt). The mosque in Ivje has open doors and all guests are heartily welcome. So that one’s thoughts can concentrate entirely on God, this mosque is also divided into two rooms: the front one for the men and the back for women.  In Ivje, as elsewhere, Friday prayer – one of the five pillars of Islam – is an opportunity for many believers to come together in the mosque. Alcohol consumption is forbidden on the evening before prayer. The service is held in Arabian as the use of the Russian translation of the Koran is not allowed during the service. In order to be able to read the Koran, many Tatars are learning Arabic again today.

Directly behind the mosque in Ivje, there are many greenhouses full of tomatoes. Growing tomatoes is an occupation typical of the Tatars in Ivje. In small towns like Ivje there are few jobs and wages are low, so the people are compelled to be resourceful.

Nearly every Tatar family has a greenhouse made of wood in its garden, where they grow tomatoes. The red fruit from Ivje is known to be particularly tasty, so traders come from as far afield as Russia and the Caucasus to haggle with the Tatar producers over the best price.

Hospitality is all-important here. If you need help in Muravshizna (a Tatar neighbourhood), you can knock on any door and ask. There’s a good chance that you’ll be asked in for a chat over tea and biscuits.

Over the centuries, Tatar rites and customs have changed and many were assimilated during the Soviet period. Therefore, for example, a Tatar wedding differs very little from a Belarusian one. However, the formal ceremony is not the wedding but the Nikāḥ (Arabian: marriage contract). This ritual still takes place in the mosque. The imam informs the couple of their rights, blesses them and signs the marriage certificate, though this is not legally binding. Inter-ethnic marriages with Belarusians, Poles, etc. often take place but they have not led as yet to complete assimilation.

Tatar children in Ivje go to state nursery schools and schools. Before the Second World War there was a Moslem school here where the children learnt the basics of the Koran and Arabic. Today, the Tatars use Arabic almost exclusively in the mosque. In this respect, the imam plays a key role. The imam officiates on an honorary basis.

When the former imam in Ivje retired from office on the grounds of age, the present imam was elected directly by the community. He was the person in whom the community had the greatest trust.

Major festivals such as the Moslem Feast of Sacrifice and the Breaking of Fasting are celebrated together in the community. According to tradition, meat is distributed to the members of the community and the oldest and most respected members of the community receive presents. Traditional Tatar dishes are prepared for these joint feasts: Tatar pilaf, urama (a kind of doughnut), chak-chak (nuts with honey) and many more.

Discover the diversity of religions in Belarus on our Circular tour of Belarus and pay a visit to Ivje and the residents of the village.

15/03/2016