Orthodox Christianity is the main religion practised in Belarus, with a sizeable Catholic minority. Before 1917 Belarus had 2,466 religious communities, including 1,650 Orthodox, 127 Catholic, 657 Jewish, 32 Protestant, and several Muslim communities, the Muslims of Belarus are without exception followers of Sunni Islam. Under the communists, the activities of these communities were severely restricted. Many religious communities were destroyed and their leaders exiled or executed; the remaining communities were sometimes co-opted by the government for its own ends, as in the effort to instill patriotism during World War II.
The most recent Pew Research Center poll in 2015 found that 94% of the population of Belarus declared itself Christians, 3% religiously unaffiliated--a category which includes atheists, agnostics and those who describe their religion as "nothing in particular", while 3% belonged to other faiths. The Christians divided between 73% Eastern Orthodox, 12% Catholic, 9% other Christians. This is in sharp contrast to the official 2011 figures in the pie chart by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which states that 48.3% of the population are Eastern Orthodox and 7.1% Catholic, with a large population not being religious.
By the end of 12th century Europe was generally divided into two large areas: western area with dominance of Catholicism and eastern with Orthodox and Byzantine influences. Border between them was roughly along the Bug River. This placed area, currently known as Belarus, into a unique position where these two influences mixed and interfered.
Before the 14th century Russian Orthodox church was dominant in Belarus. 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 to convert all population of Lithuania into Catholicism. 1.5 years after Union of Krewo Wilno episcopate was created which received a lot of land from the Lithuanian dukes. By the middle of 16th century Catholicism became strong in Lithuania and bordering with it north-west parts of Belarus. But Orthodox church was still dominant in Belarus.
In 16th century crisis began in Christianity: Protestant Reformation began in Catholicism and heresy period began in an Orthodox area. From the 50th years of 16th century Protestantism ideas began spreading in Lithuanian state, part of which was Belarus. The first Protestant Church in Belarus was created in Brest by Miko?aj "the Black" Radziwi??.
The revival of religion in Belarus in the post-communist era brought about a revival of the old historical conflict between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. This religious complexity is compounded by the two denominations' links to institutions outside the republic. The Belarusian Orthodox Church is headed by an ethnic Russian, Metropolitan Filaret, who heads an exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Catholic archdiocese of Belarus has been headed by an ethnic Pole, Cardinal Kazimir Sviontak, who had close ties to the church in Poland. However, despite these ties, Archbishop Sviontak, who had been a prisoner in the Soviet camps and a pastor in Pinsk for many years, prohibited the display of Polish national symbols in Catholic churches in Belarus.
Fledgling Belarusian religious movements are having difficulties asserting themselves within these two major religious institutions because of the historical practice of preaching in Russian in the Orthodox churches and in Polish in the Catholic churches. Attempts to introduce the Belarusian language into religious life, including the liturgy, also have not met wide success because of the cultural predominance of Russians and Poles in their respective churches, as well as the low usage of the Belarusian language in everyday life.
To a certain extent, the 1991 declaration of Belarus's independence and the 1990 law making Belarusian an official language of the republic have generated a new attitude toward the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Some religiously uncommitted young people have turned to the Uniate Church (Greek Catholic) in reaction to the resistance of the Orthodox and Catholic hierarchies to accepting the Belarusian language as a medium of communication with their flock. Overall, however, national activists have had little success in trying to generate new interest in the Greek Catholic Church.
The Greek Catholic Church, a branch of which existed in Belarus from 1596 to 1839 and had some three-quarters of the Belarusian population as members when it was abolished, is reputed to have used Belarusian in its liturgy and pastoral work. When the church was reestablished in Belarus in the early 1990s, its adherents advertised it as a "national" church. The modest growth of the Greek Catholic Church was accompanied by heated public debates of both a theological and a political character. Because the original allegiance of the Greek Catholic Church was clearly to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the reestablished church is viewed by some in the Orthodox Church in Belarus with suspicion, as being a vehicle of both Warsaw and the Vatican and an encouragement of distance from Moscow.
In 1993 one Belarusian publication reported the numbers of religious communities as follows: Orthodox, 787; Catholic, 305; Pentecostal, 170; Baptist, 141; Old Believer, twenty-six; Seventh-Day Adventist, seventeen; Apostolic Christian, nine; Greek Catholic, eight; New Apostolic, eight; Muslim, eight; Jewish, seven; and other, fifteen. 80% of religious people in Belarus are Eastern Orthodox, other (including Catholics, Protestants, Jewish, and Muslim) 20%.
Although the Russian Orthodox Church was devastated during World War II and 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. A Belarusian theological academy was to be opened in 1995.
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.
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 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.
Muslims in Belarus are 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.