Reaching the Nations

Belarus

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Belarus

Geography

Area: 207,600 square km. Landlocked in Eastern Europe, Belarus borders Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.  The climate has temperate and maritime characteristics and experiences cold winters and cool summers with frequent participation.  Most the terrain is flat with many marshes, swamps, and forests.  Large rivers include the Dnieper, Prypyats, and Nyoman.  Environmental hazards include the pollution of soil from pesticides and fallout in southern areas from the Chernobyl nuclear accident.  Belarus is administratively divided into six provinces and one municipality. 

 

Population: 9,648,533 (July 2009)

Annual Growth Rate: -0.378% (2009)

Fertility Rate: 1.24 children born per woman (2009)

Life Expectancy: 64.95 male, 76.67 female (2009)

 

Peoples

Belarusian: 81.2%

Russian: 11.4%

Polish: 3.9%

Ukrainian: 2.4%

Other: 1.1%

 

Belarus has one of the most rapidly shrinking populations worldwide due to emigration and low birth rates.  Non-Belarusians tend to live in large cities or near the nation’s borders.

 

Languages: Russian (62.8%), Belarusian (36.7%), other (0.5%).  Belarusian and Russian are the official languages.  Polish, Ukrainian, and Eastern Yiddish each have over 100,000 speakers.  Languages with over one million speakers include Russian (6.1 million) and Belarusian (3.5 million).  The 1999 census reported that 85.6% of Belarusians designated Belarusian as their mother tongue, although only 36% reported speaking it as the primary language in the home. [1]   A 2009 study by the Belarusian government reported that 72% of Belarusians speak Russian at home, whereas only 11.9% speak Belarusian at home; 29% can read, write, and speak Belarusian, whereas another 52% can read and speak but not write; this data suggests declining use of Belarusian. Belarusian language was a vernacular arising from the old Russian language with heavy borrowing of Polish vocabulary from the time of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and some orthographic changes to make the language more phonetic (for example, an unstressed "o" in Russian is pronounced as an "a," whereas in Belarusian it is written as an "a").  The literary form of modern Belarusian was standardized only in the twentieth century.  A spectrum of dialects persists, especially near the Polish and Ukrainian borders.  Belarusian has relatively high mutual intelligibility with Russian, and somewhat less with Ukrainian and Polish.

 

Literacy: 99.6%

 

History

Slavs first settled Belarus, known as White Russia or White Ruthenia prior to 1918, in the 6th century and later assimilated into the Kievan Rus’ state.  Following its collapse, principalities in Belarus aligned with Lithuania and Poland between the 12th and the late 18th centuries.  Russia acquired Belarus and retained control.  Belarus was occupied by Germany in World War I and in 1918 declared independence.  Between 1919 and 1939, territory was divided between the Soviet Union and Poland until united into a single Soviet republic.  World War II decimated Belarus and resulted in millions of deaths.  181,000 square km of Eastern Poland was ceded to the Belarusian SSR after World War II.  Independence from the Soviet Union occurred in 1991.  Out of the former Soviet republics, Belarus has maintained the closest ties with Russia and signed a treaty in 1999 to propel greater economic and political interaction. 

 

Culture            

A lack of distinct, natural borders has allowed cultural influences from most surrounding nations to contribute to modern Belarusian culture.  The Soviet Union took drastic strides in attempting to erase Belarusian culture in an effort to suppress Belarusian nationalism.  Wars in the 20th century destroyed most old buildings.  Belarus has a proud legacy of poets and writers who focused on rural life.  There is also a rich history of music and theater.  Alcohol consumption rates are lower than most of Europe and the United States.  Cigarette use is high and comparable to many Eastern European nations.  Divorce rates are high.  Gender roles are traditional and slowly changing.

 

Economy

GDP per capita: $11,600 (2009) [25% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.826

Corruption Index: 2.0

Despite the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, Belarus retained socialist economic policies in the mid-1990s.  In the 2000s, a number of private companies have been re-nationalized and government has executed stricter regulations and more control.  Ties remain strong with Russia and have fueled much of the increase in GDP.  Economic growth occurred during much of the 2000s despite government policy which limited private business and investment both domestically and internationally.  Inflation has been a recent concern.  Services constitute the largest economic sector, claiming 51% of the workforce and producing 51% of the GDP.  Industry employs 35% of the workforce and produces 40% of the GDP.  Primary industries include machine tools, tractors, and trucks.  Grain, potatoes, and vegetables are common agriculture products.  Russia is the primary trade partner which sends 59% of imports and receives 32% of Belarusian exports.  Other significant trade partners include the Netherlands, Germany, and Eastern European nations. 

 

Government is highly centralized. Corruption is a serious problem which appears to be worsening.  Low transparency has made it difficult to assess the scope of corruption in Belarus.

 

Faiths

Christian: 96%

Other: 4%

 

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Belarusian Orthodox  7,718,826

Catholic  1,350,795

Seventh-Day Adventists  5,120  76 

Jehovah’s Witnesses   4,669  56

Latter-Day Saints  500  4

 

Religion

Of the 60% of the population self-identified as religious, approximately 80% adhere to the Belarusian Orthodox Church and 14% to the Catholic Church.  4% and 2% of religious Belarusians follow non-Christian religions or Protestant churches, respectively.  Christian holidays are recognized national holidays.

 

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

Religions are regarded as equal in the constitution but freedom of religion has grown more restricted, especially since a 2002 law pertaining to religion.  There is not official religion, but the Belarusian Orthodox Church receives preferential treatment in order to safeguard traditional religion and Belarusian culture.  The 2002 law has three classifications for religious groups, the smallest being a religious community which must have at least 20 individuals over age 18 to function.  The registration of religious communities for some denominations (mainly Protestants) has taken years to accomplish.  Foreign religious groups and personnel are viewed with contempt and experience the most harassment.  Only registered religious groups can actively follow their beliefs and practices.  The 2002 law regulates the importation and distribution of religious literature by requiring prior government approval.  Foreigners cannot lead congregations. 

 

Largest Cities

Urban: 73%

 

Minsk, Gomel, Mogilev, Vitebsk, Hrodna, Brest, Babrujsk, Baranovichi, Barisaw, Pinsk, Orsa, Mazyr, Salihorsk.

Cities in bold have no church presence.

 

Three of the 13 cities with over 100,000 inhabitants have a congregation.  46% of the national population lives in the 13 largest cities. 

 

LDS History

Elder Russell M. Nelson dedicated Belarus for missionary work in May 1993.  At the time there were six young elder missionaries and two senior couples serving in the country.[2]  Belarus was included in the Latvia Riga Mission for a brief time.  In 2004, two American missionaries accused of illegally proselytizing in Mogilev were expelled.[3]

 

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: ~500 (2008)

In the mid-1990s, there were approximately 200 members.  At the end of 2000, membership increased to 383 members, reaching 403 in 2002.  By 2008, membership numbered around 500. 

 

Congregational Growth

Branches: 3 Groups: 1

Many congregations were organized in the early 1990s in Minsk when the Church was first established in Belarus.  In the mid-1990s, there were nine branches, including four in Minsk.  The Minsk Belarus District was organized during this period.   Most of these congregations were closed or consolidated in the late 1990s.  By year-end 2000, there was only one branch in Minsk.  Despite only one branch functioning, small groups of members also met in Baranovichi, Brest, Gomel, Mogilev, and Vitebsk.

 

By 2005, two branches were functioning in Minsk.[4]  A branch was organized in Vitebsk around the same time.  In late 2009, a very small branch or group met in Mogilev. 

 

Activity and Retention

Church-going members are very active in their faith.  Missionaries frequently remark on the faith and diligence of active local members and leaders.  Youth conferences are held regularly.  Each of the Minsk branches had 50 attending meetings in late 2009.  The Vitebsk Branch had eight active members in early 2010.  The congregation in Mogilov had only a handful of active members.  13 were enrolled in seminary or institute during the 2008-2009 school year.  A large number of inactive members joined the Church in the early to mid 1990s and did not remain active for very long.  Total active membership is likely no more than 150, or 30%.

 

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Russian, Polish, Ukrainian

All LDS scriptures are available in Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian.  Russian, Polish and Ukrainian have a large number of Church materials translated, including many institute manuals.  The Church has translated few materials into Belarusian which include the Articles of Faith, The Prophet Joseph Smith’s Testimony, Gospel Principles Simplified, the sacrament prayers, a video on the First Vision and Restoration, and a couple family history forms.  The Liahona magazine has 12 issues in Russian a year. 

 

Meetinghouses

Church meetings take place in rented spaces. 

 

Humanitarian and Development Work

Missionaries have done wide-reaching anti-smoking campaigns with school children for many years.  Humanitarian missionaries have taught more productive agricultural practices resulting in higher crop yields.[5]  Wheelchair donations occur regularly.  In 2009, the Church donated humanitarian supplies to boarding houses in Vitebsk and the Brest Region.  

 

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

 

Religious Freedom

Missionaries operate under many restrictions.  Foreign missionaries are prohibited from teaching in Church meetings, leading congregations, and wearing nametags.  Members must provide missionaries with referrals as missionaries are not permitted to proselyte.  Little time is spent teaching investigators or strengthening members as missionaries provide humanitarian service.  Whereas missionaries served in several large cities cities in the 1990s, missionaries are presently only registered in Minsk and are not allowed to be assigned elsewhere.  The law requires at least 20 members over age 18 to hold Church services as a religious community, and so many small groups are unable to hold public meetings.

 

Cultural Issues

Many Belarusians have sought to return to traditional Belarusian traditions and in turn have become less receptive to the Church.  Decades of communism have resulted in a many becoming irreligious.  High cigarette consumption rates indicate that potential converts may struggle with overcoming cigarette addictions prior to baptism.  Some converts who relapse may be a source of member attrition.  High divorce rates challenge Church efforts to instill greater importance on the family unit and bring full families into the Church. 

 

National Outreach

Government restrictions result in most having no contact or awareness of the Church.  Only members and family, friends and associates of members have any mission outreach.  Cities with a congregation account for 24-34% of the national population depending on whether cities with groups meeting in the early 2000s still function today.  Missionaries are only assigned to Minsk, but do travel frequently to other cities for humanitarian work, teaching investigators, and strengthening members. 

 

In March 2010, one of the Minsk branches began holding monthly missionary firesides to provide members with the opportunity of inviting friends and family to learn about the Church.  The first meeting taught about healthy foods and the dangers of tobacco. 

 

Member Activity and Convert Retention

Belarus experienced poor convert retention in the 1990s when the bulk of nominal Church members were baptized.  The Church appears to have achieved greater convert retention in the 2000s, although growth has been very slow and retention remains a challenge.  The high level of dedication for investigators joining the Church in a country with increasing restrictions on religious freedom over the past decade may have been a source of greater strength.  Isolated members in remote cities lack the member support base enjoyed in Minsk and may be more prone to casual Church attendance and lower levels of doctrinal understanding.  

 

Ethnic Issues and Integration

With the exception of Belarusians and Russians, membership size and distribution remain too limited for ethnic integration issues in congregations.  As most Belarusians speak Russian as their primary language and use of Russian is increasing, ethnic issues have presented little difficulty.    

 

Language Issues

Members switch between Russian and Belarusian frequently in Church meetings.  Most the population has some functionality in both languages and members in Church meetings likely determine what language to speak in based on the demographics of the congregation.  No LDS scriptures are available in Belarusian. There presently appears to be little impetus for Belarusian translations, as the vast majority of Belarusians use Russian as their primary language, and the majority of Belarusians can read but not  write in Belarusian, Belarusian translations may be helpful in demonstrating respect for national pride and cultural heritage, but are likely to have little impact on national outreach.

 

Missionary Service

Both humanitarian and proselyting missionaries serve in Belarus   The first Belarusian called to serve as a mission president was President Davydik of the Minsk Belarus District who served as the mission president for the Russia Samara Mission.  Some local members have served missions, one of whom was serving in the Russian Vladivostok Mission in early 2010. 

 

Leadership

All Church leaders in Belarus are natives due to government restrictions on foreigners leading congregations.  This has allowed for greater self-sufficiency among Belarusian leadership compared to many other Eastern European nations.  Training of local leadership from Mission and Area Church leaders may be difficult due to laws forbidding foreigners from preaching in meetings. 

 

Temple

When the Helsinki Finland Temple was dedicated, Belarus was included in the temple district.  In 2009, members traveled to the Freiburg Germany Temple.  Temple trips occur twice a year for Belarus and last for one week and have at least 30 to 40 members in attendance. 

 

Comparative Growth

Belarus has experienced the slowest membership growth of any former Soviet Republic which opened to the Church in the early 1990s.  Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have a combined population less than Belarus but have approximately 3,000 members and 17 congregations.  The percentage of Church members in the population in Belarus is less than Russia, Moldova, and any Western European nation.  Belarusian members do appear more self reliant than many Eastern European nations with few members and active members stand out for their diligence and devotion. 

 

In the mid-1990s, the Church in Belarus was viewed by some as a model of the growth and strength that can occur through member-missionary work alone; some mission leaders in other Russian-speaking missions took steps to discourage independent missionary finding and encourage missionaries to spend more time soliciting member referrals. However, the stagnation of growth, struggles to retain members, consolidation of congregations in Minsk, and lack of congregational viability in many outlying cities since missionaries were withdrawn, all demonstrate the shortfalls of this model. Both member-missionary outreach and full-time missionary outreach are needed for church growth to reach its potential. In regions where independent contacting by full-time missionaries is prohibited, like Belarus, or where it is limited by mission policy or lack of effort, as is the case in some other area missions, church growth is limited. Member-missionary efforts may hold increased future potential, yet considerable refinement of institutional member-missionary programs will be needed as well as local effort for this potential to be realized.

 

Other Christian groups experienced large gains in membership in the 1990s and have seen much more limited growth in the 2000s due to government restrictions.  Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses experience modest rates of growth compared to the LDS Church, but have greater national outreach and larger church memberships due to greater institutional focus on member-missionary programs and less reliance on foreign missionaries. 

 

Future Prospects

Belarusian members have proved faithful leaders and are capable of living Church teachings despite the many government regulations.  Outlook for future growth appears positive, but few converts have joined the Church in recent years.  The lack of new members may prove a significant challenge for the integration of converts and member enthusiasm for continued outreach..  However local members have shown a willingness to participate in member-missionary work and finding activities, which may in the future yield greater increases in convert retention rates. 

 


[2]  “4 European lands dedicated,” LDS Church News, 12 June 1993.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/23051/4-European-lands-dedicated.html

[3]  “Belarus expels two Mormons for ‘illegal missionary activity’,” Associated Press, 25 October 2004.  http://www.religionnewsblog.com/9104

[4]  Timofeeva, Marina.  “How Could We Go to the Temple?,” Liahona, July 2005, 42–43

[5]  Holland, Jeffrey R. “‘Witnesses unto Me’,” Liahona, Jul 2001, 15–17