Language in the religious life of Belarus: what are the current trends?

Language in the religious life of Belarus: what are the current trends?

Active discussions about language issues in the religious life in Belarus started only in the early 1990s. The growing activities of religious denominations and the changing attitude of authorities towards religion resulted in significant transformations in this area. Our expert Andrzej Tichomirow offers his view on the language issues in the religions life of Belarus.

The issue of language use in the religious life of modern Belarus is not a new phenomenon. Following the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church underwent a significant reform. National languages were introduced into the main church services and gradually started to replace the Latin language. In the case of Belarus, the transition from Latin to Polish was finally accomplished by the end of the 1970s, while in some religious communities the church services in the Belarusian language were introduced.

After the restoration of the Belarusian independence in 1991, the language factor in the country’s religious life became an important issue. This period was characterized by the revival of the national identity and religious life, the recovery of the organizational structures of all religious denominations in the country, and the notable increase of national minority activities. Establishment of credible relations between the state and all religious denominations after the decades of “state atheism” was an important step not only towards a general normalization of the societal relationships, but also a way to ensure the development of all aspects of religious life in the country, including the language issues.

The Law on Languages was adopted on 26 January 1990. It proclaimed Belarusian as the sole state language and ensured its priority in the all spheres of public life in the country. At the same time, the law secured the significance of the Russian language and other languages spoken in the country. As for the state authorities, they strove for a wider dissemination of the Belarusian language in the religious life. The Catholic Church supported this aspiration, but at the same time it took into account the needs of the believers of different ethnicities (primarily, the Polish national minority). However, in the first half of the 1990s the endeavors to preserve religious practices in the Polish language were often commented on negatively in publicism and political debates. Moreover, some Belarusian politicians perceived the very preservation of the Polish language as a result of old-time assimilation policies and national oppression and even wished a complete replacement the Polish language by Belarusian in church services. After the 1995 referendum and the proclamation of Russian as the second state language, the situation has changed significantly. The Belarusian language started to fade out in the official domain, while during the next two decades the Russian language has become the dominant language of the country’s public sphere.

Most of the religious denominations in Belarus declare a positive attitude towards the Belarusian language. They perceive it as an important identity symbol and a means of communication of a significant number of believers. At the same time, the role of traditional liturgical languages remains important for some religious denominantions, namely the Old Church Slavonic for the Russian Orthodox Church, Hebrew for Judaism and Arabic for Islam.

The Church Slavonic and the Russian languages dominate in the Orthodox Church in Belarus. However, there is a persistent trend towards a wider use of the Belarusian language in preaching, as well as in some parts of the church services, literature, media and Internet platforms. Meanwhile, Russian remains the language of church sermons and daily practices. As a rule, the Orthodox Church explains it by a certain tradition, the habits of the clergy and the majority of believers. There are just a few secular journalists and politicians, who might criticize this state of affairs. In fact, the dominance of the Russian language is not perceived in a critical manner. At the same time, the higher hierarchy of the Orthodox Church does not have negative stance towards the church services in the Belarusian language. However, it emphasizes the gradualness and cautiousness of this process. The Orthodox Church publishes books in the Belarusian language. The process of full translation of the Bible into the modern Belarusian language according to the Orthodox tradition is currently underway. However, the Orthodox religious literature in Belarus is still published mostly in Russian.

Since early 1990s, the Belarusian language (along with Polish and Lithuanian) has gradually become one of the liturgical languages of Catholics in Belarus. Since the early 2000s, it began to dominate liturgical practices in the religious communities of Eastern and Central Belarus. The Catholic Church in Belarus is represented by the Roman Catholic Church and the Catholic Church of the Eastern Rite (Uniate Church). The later uses exclusively the Belarusian language in its religious practices. As for the Roman Catholic Church, the role and dominance of Belarusian has been increasing during the last 15 years. In practice, the majority of the Roman Catholic communities in the western regions of the country usually use two liturgical languages – Polish and Belarusian. The Latin language is used very rarely in liturgy and is rather limited to some small traditionalist communities.

The Catholic Church actively publishes religious literature in the Belarusian language, including the Bible, liturgical books, prayer books and the press. The Belarusian language prevails in the Catholic segment of the Belarusian Internet. It is noteworthy that the vocabulary of the modern Belarusian language pertinent to Catholic liturgical practice partly differs from the one used by the Orthodox Church. At the same time, the actual confessional vocabulary has not yet gained a proper formalization and recognition from academic official institutions, which regulate the norms of the literary language in Belarus [1]. The terminology issues remain one of the most discussed in the religious domain and among professional philologists, cultural scientists and theologians. Preservation of national minority languages in services and community life of the Roman Catholic Church remains an important element of minorities’ identity. Since the mid-1990s, many researchers emphasize the decrease in the number of regular church services in the Polish language [2].

Some denominations of the Protestant tradition use the Belarusian language in their church services, including spiritual songs and religious literature. Meanwhile, the Russian language retains its dominant position.

Belarusian Muslims traditionally use the Arabic language in their religious practices. However, Belarusian (written with Arabic graphics) has been actively used in the religious literature for several centuries. Currently, the translation of the meanings of the Qur’an into the modern Belarusian language is underway.

One should consider two scenarios for the possible development of the use of languages in religious life in Belarus.

The most plausible scenario is the preservation of the current trends which has been observed since the early 1990s, i.e. a gradual and purposeful expansion of the use of the Belarusian language in various religious denominations with the simultaneous preservation of their liturgical and historical specifics. In this case, the process of linguistic Belarusianization in religious life will go as fairly smoothly. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that ethnic minorities and ethno-confessional communities (especially Jews and Muslims) will continue to strive for preserving their own languages in the religious domain.

The second scenario would imply a certain forced change of the existing trends in favor of the Belarusian or Russian languages. Taking into account a relatively large autonomy of religious denominations in Belarus (although officials try by different means to influence various aspects of the religious life of the country), this scenario seems rather unlikely. This assessment can be explained by possible resistance of a fairly large group of believers and clergy. The state guarantees the use of any language, which citizens find convenient in their private life. Religious sphere in Belarus is usually a matter of private interest and depends on individual preferences. Thus, any type of forced changes in this domain would be strongly unwelcomed by the society.


[1] Hrakaŭ, M. “Bielaruskaja mova ŭ sfiery sacrum”: ci budzie narešcie pačuty holas Kasciola?, 22.02.2018,
[2] Inter alia, it is worth paying attention to some works on this issue: Gorbaniuk J., Gorbaniuk O. (2005). Postrzegane przyczyny i konsekwencje wprowadzenia języka białoruskiego do liturgii mszy św. w Kościele katolickim na Białorusi [in:] Problemy świadomości narodowej ludności polskiej na Białorusi, materiały międzynarodowej konferencji naukowej, 22-24 października 2004 r., s. 7-24; Dzwonkowski R. (2003). Polacy w Kościele katolickim na Wschodzie: czego oczekują? [in:] Problemy świadomości narodowej ludności polskiej na Białorusi, materiały międzynarodowej konferencji naukowej, 22-24 listopada 2001 r., s. 21-32.

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