by Eugene Gerasimov | 20 August 2020 |
As you have undoubtedly seen on the news, right now Belarus, where my wife Olga and I live, is experiencing massive protests. Former president Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, decided he wanted to “win” another election. He did everything he could to manipulate the election in his favor.
But something unexpected happened. Even though he’d put in prison or forced out of the country all opposition candidates, prohibited neutral election observers, and turned off the internet to the entire nation, he lost the election to Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, a woman who wasn’t even a politician, but the wife of a candidate whom Lukashenko had imprisoned.
On election day Lukashenko awarded himself 80% of the votes, when the real result may well have been just the opposite of that. That began a tsunami of peaceful protests across Belarus. You may have already seen on television how the Belarus police and military attacked peaceful demonstrators, beat unarmed people, and—most alarming—tortured thousands of men and women whom they’d arrested.
Belarus is a European country, located between Poland and Russia, with 10 million inhabitants. There are about 3,800 Seventh-day Adventists here. I am a pastor in one of the smaller cities in Belarus. Olga and I have been out with the people in the streets. Here are my observations.
The bad in people
The most alarming thing that we’ve seen in the last week—and it is continuing—is the fury with which police and military forces have gone after peaceful demonstrators, people holding flowers in their hands.
The vast majority of protesters didn’t do anything against the law. They didn’t break any windows, didn’t burn tires, and there weren’t even any cases of looting. But thousands of Belarusans were beaten on the streets, and it made no difference if they were protesters, or just pedestrians or drivers on their way home from work. At least 8,000 people have been arrested, and some were raped, beaten and tortured in prisons. Hundreds are still in prison. Dozens are missing without a trace. People are afraid to go outside in our cities in the evening, fearful not of criminals, but of the police.
After the internet was turned back on and we could see what had happened, our society was shocked. We are in the center of Europe, but some of the torture we are seeing now may be worse even than under fascism in World War 2. There are reports that the police were packing 80 people into what is usually a 4-person cell without water, food or toilet facilities. The humiliations they endured were terrible: raping people with a rubber police baton, stripping them and beating them while naked. It happened even to 14-year-old girls and boys.
It shows that we human beings have a sinful nature and, no matter what country we live in, what education level we have, or what our past experiences, we are capable of astonishing evil if granted carte blanche power over others. Jesus himself experienced such treatment from good believers: he was arrested, and—though he had done them no wrong—evil, angry people did whatever they wanted to do to him.
Because of the presence of evil in the world, all human beings have the potential to hurt and dominate others. Any group (including churches, we know from history) can become dominating and cruel if they are given complete power over people.
We in Belarus are experiencing that just now.
The good in people
There is a bright side to human nature too. When the police stepped back for a few days, I saw something I’d never seen before: the appearance of real care and concern among the protesters, and an almost-miraculous emergence of volunteerism.
This past Sunday I participated in a protest of about 10,000 here in the small city where I live. Hundreds of people walked and drove here to give away bottled water, medics were on hand to help those in need, and some were on the street giving hungry people homemade sandwiches! Everyone stopped when the traffic light turned red and no one stepped out onto the street from the sidewalk. No aggression, but sincere smiles for everyone. (Slavic people don’t normally smile at one another the way Americans do). After the crowd of 10,000 had dispersed, people collected trash—though there was little to be found. There is a photo from the protest in Minsk of people taking off their shoes to stand on a street bench!
Volunteers are fixing for free some of the hundreds of cars the police gratuitously damaged. Cosmetic salons are doing makeup for free for women whose faces were beaten in prison. Lawyers and medical centers and other organizations are volunteering their services. This is amazing—I have never seen such a spirit in our country.
Just as human beings are capable of horrible cruelty, there is, likewise, something inside a human being that can awaken when he or she sees the sufferings of innocent people. When that happens, a person doesn’t need to consult the Ten Commandments, those rules that we so like to preach about and post on the wall behind the preacher. People respond with empathy to the pain of others. Scripture says that some seeing the death of innocent Jesus “beat their breasts.”
There is greater power in love for changing people to become more in God’s image, than in any commandment or church tradition. Unfortunately for the people of Belarus, this love was evoked at the cost of tremendous suffering.
Church vs. organization
Even after the awful tortures that have been widely shown in the media here, as of today, August 20, there has been no reaction from the Seventh-day Adventist church at all, from any level. No letter from Belarus Union of Churches, no word from the Euro-Asian Division, not a word from the man who calls himself the “President of the World Church of Seventh-day Adventists.” No one in the church seems to care about the violence here. The organization seems more interested in protecting itself than in what is happening to the people on the ground.
Not so for some other churches. Pope Francis called for prayer about Belarus this past Sunday. The Roman Catholic cardinal, head of the Belarus church, is still trying every day to meet the police chief to try to stop the violence. In my city, Catholic priests opened the gates of their cathedral so protesters could find safety inside, and for several days their building was a hiding place. Many Russian Orthodox priests also are trying to be out with the people, and trying to get messages to the authorities. I know other believers, Catholics and Protestant, who are volunteering and supporting people in need.
An organization is different from a church. An organization protects itself, its assets. It wants to avoid reprisals. So it must honor rulers more than it does ordinary people. Jesus’ church—his real body—is made up of people who sense what is happening around them, and who serve and love people even when a mere organization is hiding away so as to escape bad consequences.
Sometimes members and pastors must take risks on their own. They must not always stay on the safe side of the wall or, as we’ve often been told, remain “independent of politics.”
What you can do
Belarus is in a crisis. Even should our crisis end, the world is still full of other dictatorships. What can Adventists in the rest of the world do to help people in situations like ours?
Pray for us. Sometimes God will do miracles. He can change things. It happened with the Soviet Union and the other countries behind the Iron Curtain—I myself lived through these events. The main theme of our prayers here is stopping violence. And if the situation should change to a real democracy, then the church will receive the right to preach freely—not like now, when we can’t do anything outside the walls of the church building.
Support immigration—whether people are Adventist or not—should this become necessary. I am not certain that this will end peacefully. Belarus could yet turn into a bloodbath. If we don’t have a change, those who participated in the protests will live in fear. They will lose jobs. Those on the front lines will become outcasts. Government repression will be worse than you can imagine. Some will have to move to other countries, and they will need help.
Call on the church to speak. If you have the ear of any of the leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, please tell them that their members (as well as other innocent people) are suffering just now. We saw church leaders alarmed about church elections in union conferences in Africa, accusing the government of religious liberty violations as church members fought with one another.
Perhaps the people of Belarus, legitimately suffering under a cruel dictator, are worth worrying about, too?
Eugene Gerasimov writes from Belarus.