Christianity is the main religion in Belarus, with Eastern Orthodoxy being the largest denomination.
The legacy of the state atheism of the Soviet era is evident in the fact that a large part of the Belarusians are not religious. Moreover, other non-traditional and new religions have sprung up in the country after the end of the Soviet Union.
According to the most recent estimations for 2011 by the Ministry of the Interior, 48.3% of the Belarusians are Orthodox Christians, 41.1% are irreligious (atheists and agnostics), 7.1% are Catholics (either Roman Catholic and Belarusian Greek Catholic), and 3.5% are members of other religions.
Many other religions are also well represented in the country, including:
- Roman Catholics (499 churches);
- Protestants (over 1000 communities);
- Jews (more than 50 Hebrew communities);
- Muslims (24 communities and nine mosques).
The history of religion in Belarus
By the end of the 12th century, Europe was generally divided into two large areas: the western area with the dominance of Catholicism, and eastern with Orthodox and Byzantine influences. The border between them was roughly marked by the Bug River. This placed the area now known as Belarus in a unique position where these two influences mixed and interfered.
Before the 14th century, the Orthodox church was dominant in Belarus. The Union of Krewo in 1385 broke this monopoly and made Catholicism the religion of the ruling class. Jogaila, then ruler of Lithuania, part of which was Belarus, ordered the whole population of Lithuania to convert to Catholicism. 1.5 years after the Union of Krewo, the Wilno episcopate was created which received a lot of land from the Lithuanian dukes. By the mid-16th century, Catholicism became strong in Lithuania and bordering with it north-west parts of Belarus, but the Orthodox church was still dominant in Belarus.
In the 16th century, a crisis began in Christianity: the Protestant Reformation began in Catholicism and a period of heresy began in an Orthodox area. From the mid-16th century, Protestant ideas began spreading in Lithuania, which included Belarus. The first Protestant Church in Belarus was created in Brest by Mikołaj “the Black” Radziwiłł. Protestantism did not survive due to the Counter-Reformation in Poland.
Christianity in Belarus
Although the Russian Orthodox Church was devastated during World War IIand continued to decline until the early 1980s because of government policies, it underwent a small revival with the onset of perestroika and the celebration in 1988 of the 1,000- year anniversary of Christianity in Russia. In 1990 Belarus was designated an exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, creating the Belarusian Orthodox Church. In the early 1990s, 60 percent of the population identified themselves as Orthodox. The church had one seminary, three convents, and one monastery.
Soviet policies toward the Catholic Church were strongly influenced by the Catholics’ recognition of an outside authority, the pope, as head of the church, as well as by the close historical ties of the church in Belarus with Poland. In 1989 the five official Catholic dioceses, which had existed since World War II and had been without a bishop, were reorganized into five dioceses (covering 455 parishes) and the archdiocese of Minsk and Mahilyow. In the early 1990s, figures for the Catholic population in Belarus ranged from 8 percent to 20 percent; one estimate identified 25 percent of the Catholics as ethnic Poles. The church had one seminary in Belarus.
At the beginning of 2005, the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church had 20 parishes, of which 13 had obtained state recognition. As of 2003, there have been two Belarusian Greek Catholic parishes in each of the following cities – Minsk, Polatsk, and Vitsebsk; and only one in Brest, Hrodna, Mahiliou, Maladziechna, and Lida. The faithful permanently attached to these came to about 3,000, while some 4,000 others lived outside the pastoral range of the parishes. Today there are 16 priests and 9 seminarians. There is a small Studite monastery at Polatsk. The parishes are organized into two deaneries, each headed by an archpriest. The Abbot of the Polatsk monastery serves as the dean of the eastern deanery. There is no eparch (bishop) for the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church. Archimandrite Sergius Gajek, MIC, is the Apostolic Visitator for the Greek-Catholic Church in Belarus. Worship is in the Belarusian language.
Before World War II, the number of Protestants in Belarus was quite low in comparison with other Christians, but they have shown growth since then. In 1917, there were 32 Protestant communities. In 1990, there were more than 350 Protestant communities in the country.
Judaism in Belarus
The first Jewish communities appeared in Belarus at the end of the 14th century and continued to increase until the genocide of World War II. Mainly urban residents, the country’s nearly 1.3 million Jews in 1914 accounted for 50 to 60 percent of the population in cities and towns. The Soviet census of 1989 counted some 142,000 Jews, or 1.1 percent of the population, many of whom have since emigrated. Although the boundaries of Belarus changed from 1914 to 1922, a significant portion of the decrease was the result of the war. In late 1992, there were nearly seventy Jewish organizations active in Belarus, half of which were country-wide.
Islam in Belarus
Muslims in Belarus is represented by small communities of ethnic Tatars. All of them are followers of Sunni Islam. Some of these Tatars are descendants of emigrants and prisoners of war who settled in Belarus, from the Volga Region, after the 11th century. In 1997 there were 23 Muslim communities, including 19 of those in the Western regions of Belarus.
Demographics by region
There was estimated to be as follows by the Generations and Gender Survey and the large sample could allow estimating of the religious composition at the regional level. Eastern Orthodoxy is predominant all over the country, while there is a strong Catholic minority in the western part of the country making up 6.7% of the total population and 32.3% of the population in the Grodno Region. Many Catholics in Belarus belong to minority ethnic groups such as Poles (who make up the 3.1% of the total population according to the most recent 2009 Census) but include many ethnic Belarusians as well.