Published March 9, 2005

Eye on Eurasia: Weeping icons of Belarus

By Paul Goble

TARTU, Estonia -- Visitors to a Russian Orthodox Church in a small town near the Belarusian capital report that icons there are now weeping blood, a development that the local clergy say reflects God's sadness at the rising tide of evil in the world and may point to impending disaster in that country.

According to an article published in "KP v Belorussii" and posted online late last month(, approximately a dozen icons in an Orthodox church in Dzerzhinsk began to weep myrrh about a month ago, something that attracted the attention of the local community.

But in the last two weeks of February, more than 80 of the holy images in that church have begun to shed what appear to be tears of blood, as a picture featured in the article on the Web site shows. That in turn has attracted more people to the church and prompted the media attention that resulted in the "KP v Belorussii" report.

The priest and his wife were not shy about showing the icons to that paper's skeptical reporter, Natalya Artemchik. And they were not restrained in explaining to her what they believe this phenomenon points to: an effort by God to "remind us about Him," in the words of Father Aleksandr.

The priest's wife, Svetlana, told Artemchik that the tears on one icon reflected the fact that "people and especially men drink too much." She said that those on another represented divine concern about the sad reality that so many people have ceased to believe and have fallen away from the church.

Noting that "blood in a church is a bad sign," Mother Svetlana pointed out that icons had bled in Moscow churches just before the Kursk submarine disaster. And crossing herself three times; she expressed her own fear that something equally tragic might take place in Belarus in the near future.

When Father Aleksandr showed Artemchik the myrrh he had collected from the icons earlier, she suggested that it strongly resembled Vaseline, an idea that the priest quickly dismissed with a laugh. "You lay people are used to not believing in anything; you're always trying to find a simple explanation for everything."

And he pointedly told the "KP v Belorussii" reporter, "It is already time to think about one's soul, especially since the Lenten fast is beginning."

Whether the tears on the icons of the Dzerzhinsk church are a miracle, as the priest and his wife believe, or whether they are something else entirely, this unusual development may very well have a serious impact on those in Belarus who learn about it.

Many Belarusians, like people in neighboring countries, continue to be much affected by such signs and draw on them to interpret events. For many in that region, the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 was made all the more horrible because the name itself is used in the Apocalypse of St. John to designate the bitter wormwood connected with the end of the world.

The story of the weeping icons in the Dzerzhinsk church is unlikely to have an equally dramatic impact on the way people in Belarus think about their lives and their future in one of the most authoritarian and repressive countries at the edge of Europe.

But the very possibility that they might do just that perhaps explains why the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka allowed this article to appear at all -- and also why the journalist was quite careful to restrain her skepticism.

(Paul Goble teaches at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia.)