Women gesture in front of Sts. Simon and Helena Church in Minsk Aug. 28, 2020, during a protest against the results of the Belarusian election, which many believe was won by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. CNS photo/Vasily Fedosenko, Reuters

Protest harnesses the power of faith

  • March 28, 2021

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said faith is the essential, secret power in her country’s struggle for democracy.

“Usually, church is supposed to be out of politics. But churches can’t stand aside when people are raped and tortured in jail,” Tsikhanouskaya told an online conference arranged by the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax attended by about 200 Canadians. “(President Alexander) Lukashenko is afraid of churches. He is afraid of faith, because faith often reminds us of our values.”

Since last May, Belarus has seen the largest and longest-running protests in the country’s history. Led by women wearing white and carrying flowers, Belarusians have taken to the streets demanding Lukashenko stand aside after he claimed to have won 80 per cent of the votes in a widely discredited election.

The regime responded with mass arrests. There have been reports of torture and rape in the prisons and violent attacks on peaceful protesters in the streets of the capital Minsk. Lukashenko has been in office, without interruption, since 1994, shortly after the dissolution of the USSR.

Speaking with AST professor David Deane, Tsikhanouskaya thanked Canada for its support, recalling that the first international leader to call her when she went into exile was then-Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne.

“It was a sure sign to me that the world is with us,” she said.

The AST presentation of the Belarusian opposition leader was billed as part of the east coast theology school’s Leadership Learning program.

“Sviatlana is a wonderful and inspiring example of living values-based leadership,” said Leadership Learning program director Sherie Hodds.

In part, Tsikhanouskaya’s uniqueness on the world stage comes from the fact she doesn’t want to lead, said Deane.

“It’s very, very different from traditional, masculine forms of leadership,” Deane told The Catholic Register after the March 18 Zoom event. “And that’s one of the most radical things. ... All of a sudden you’ve got someone who is saying, ‘I’m looking for a different form of leadership, one where I’m simply the focal point for other people.’ It’s a people-led movement in which the goal is not power — in which the goal is compassion, in which the language is compassion. What she is doing is breaking molds all over the place.”

Deane has known the 38-year-old Tsikhanouskaya since she was a young teen who spent her summers at the Deane family farm in Ireland as a refuge away from the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The theology professor points out how Tsikhanouskaya’s politics lines up with Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti.

Within weeks of Fratelli Tutti being published last October, Tsikhanouskaya and her team had sent a 4,000-word response to Pope Francis. The idea of a politics of love, as proposed by Pope Francis, speaks precisely to the Belarusian situation, Deane said.

Generations of Belarusians who have endured the disaster of the Second World War, control by Soviet Russia, government unwilling and unable to deal with Chernobyl fallout and a corrupt dictatorship under Lukashenko have been left cynical and despairing when it comes to politics, Deane said.

“All of a sudden this person came along who got into politics, not because she wanted power — who got into this situation entirely through love,” Deane said. “Yes, love of her husband, but I think more so love of her children. She didn’t want her children to grow up in this kind of (cynical) world.”

Speaking to Canadians, Tsikhanouskaya reminded them that her sole aim is to see free and fair elections in her country.

“Democracy is not just a word for us,” she said. “It is values that become actions. ... We will have to learn how it is to live in a democratic country, where everybody is responsible for the future. Democracy is responsibility.”

Deane sees his old friend acting on her values.

“It’s her story. We’re aware of her sacrifices. We’re aware of her witness. We’re aware of what we call martyrdom. It’s that embodied expression that makes all the difference,” he said.

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