Personal reflection by a long-standing Quest member
I was surprised when another Quest member asked me whether I knew St Elisabeth Convent in Minsk, Belarus. Indeed, I was well aware of this only functioning Orthodox convent in the city that used to be my home. It regularly features in Belarusian media, often – for the wrong for Christians reasons, incl. rampant homophobia. Why anyone in Britain would be interested in this convent, however?
This Quest member told me that the nuns from St Elisabeth Convent frequently visit his Roman Catholic parish – as well as many other parishes in Britain – to sell religious goods and souvenirs. They approach bishops for support. Bishops eager to have vibrant ecumenical activities in their dioceses encourage their priests to welcome Orthodox retail missions in their parishes.
St Elisabeth Convent is enormous – it has about 130 nuns, 12 opulent churches and chapels. Nuns do not appear in the media normally, but they are visible in Minsk: some collect the money in subways and work in the convent’s retail outlets in hospitals, shopping malls and markets. Others work in the convent’s farmsteads, with alcoholics and their families, with homeless.
The media personality speaking for the convent is its priest confessor (i.e. the head priest of the convent), Fr Andrei Lemyashonak. He does it frequently.
“Gay propaganda law” campaign
I started following the reports about the convent after Fr Lemyashonak joined the campaign for prohibiting “propaganda and public demonstration of homosexuality and other sexual perversions to minors”, and for making such “propaganda and public demonstration” of homosexuality or transgender identity a criminal offence. A similar law, commonly known as the “gay propaganda law”, was introduced in neighbouring country, Russia, in 2013. According to the Human Rights Watch, the Russian law has been used to suppress valuable information and services to young people across the country and to bar LGBT+ support groups from working with youth. There have been multiple reports of violence against LGBT+ people in Russia which were left unchallenged due to the “gay propaganda law” discouraging people from speaking up against homophobia.
The Belarusian campaign was initiated by pro-life groups which recently started engaging in political campaigning not related directly to what the pro-life movement has been normally associated with. This campaign was endorsed by Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the head of the Belarusian Conference of Catholic Bishops at that time. Over 50,000 signatures calling on the Belarusian dictator, Aleksander Lukashenko, to introduce the “gay propaganda law” were collected by mainly Roman Catholic laity. Many Roman Catholic priests refused to allow this campaign – recognising its viciousness – in their parishes.
Fr Lemyashonak’s homophobic advocacy
Three quarters of the Belarusian population associate themselves with the Belarusian Orthodox Church, which is a small part of the Russian Orthodox Church. For a while, it was silent about the pro-lifers’ campaign. In November 2019, however, Fr Lemyashonak produced a video address in support of the campaign; it received considerable media attention in Belarus.
In the address, Fr Lemyashonak warned against the “evils spreading across Europe”: same-sex marriages and the adoption of children by same-sex couples. He referred to them as “the beginning of the end of the world”. He called to stop this “evil” from imposing itself on young people and spoiling their lives and destroying families in Belarus.
On the convent’s website, he was quoted saying: “LGBT+ is an anti-family ideology, it is a fight against family. Destruction of family is the devil’s primary aim. When the family gets destroyed, the end of the world will come.” And about transgender people: “Now, it turns, out, a child can decide to be a boy or a girl; a child can choose, God is not needed! It is a protest against God, it is a revolt, it is a war with God”. He calls homosexual and transgender people sick and assures that the “suffering ones” who come to confess sins to Fr Lemyashonak return to normal life: creating families and bring up children. He describes as ‘horrifying’ the fact that some people who may disagree with “these perversions”, still tolerate their existence in the society. According to Fr Lemyashonak, “this tolerance is also propaganda”.
Fr Andrei Lemyashonak not only advocates dubious and hurtful ideas of the pathological nature of homosexuality and transgender identity, but he also condemns tolerance and calls for the suppression and criminalisation of LGBT+ people who desire to live their lives openly and honestly. He did not stop with just talking: he enabled the collection of signatures for the “gay propaganda law” campaign through the retail outlets in the convent and took part in the campaign’s final press conference.
Orthodox priests challenge the “gay propaganda law” campaign
The press secretary of the Belarusian Orthodox Church distanced the Church from Fr Lemyashonak’s role in the campaign, referring to the video address as Fr Lemyashonak’s “personal initiative”. Another Orthodox priest, Pavel Siardyuk, chair of the Synodal Commission (for Family, Protection of Motherhood and Childhood), vigorously disagreed with the campaign’s aim and highlighted the danger of the Church supporting the government’s agenda of suppressing certain groups of people.
Solidarity with LGBT+ people in Belarus
As Catholics, we know well what the use of the state’s repressive machinery against perceived sinners is called: the Inquisition. It is always violent; it is always wrong. The Inquisition was a shameful page in the history of our Church for which Pope John Paul II asked for forgiveness on the behalf of the whole Church.
St Elisabeth convent is a large Belarusian producer of religious icons, liturgical utensils, vestments etc. The convent also owns a vast retail network in Belarus and, judging by its website, worldwide. It must be a profitable business. There would be nothing wrong for people in the West to support this business if it were not smeared in homophobia. The nuns coming to our parishes never tell ordinary Catholic parishioners wishing their best to Christians in poorer countries that their money would finance more than just the convent’s charitable work in Belarus. Many Catholics would be ashamed of such activities and fearful for the wellbeing and freedom of their LGBT+ siblings in Christ in Belarus.
So I call on Quest members not to support St Elisabeth Convent with your money. If their nuns or associated sellers operate in your diocese, please alert your priests and bishops to the convent’s role in inflaming tension and the persecution of LGBT+ people in Belarus.