St Elisabeth Convent of Minsk: Unveiling the Truth

This document summarises the activities of St Elisabeth Convent (further – SEC) in Minsk and controversies around it. It consists of five parts:

1. Covid dissent and nurturing mistrust towards healthcare

2. Support for the authoritarian regime and political persecutions

3. Conflict in the Convent and Dismissals

4. Support of the Russian aggression against Ukraine

5. Reactions

1. Covid dissent and nurturing mistrust towards healthcare

The initial major controversy around SEC happened in 2020 in relation to the outbreak of COVID-19 among nuns, sisters and workers; it was initially denied by the convent. SEC ignored the recommendations of the epidemiological services and the Belarusian Orthodox Church leadership to close for Easter and did not implement measures like a strict mask regime, observing distance between worship participants, etc. According to public information, approximately half of the nuns became ill, many experienced severe symptoms and required hospitalisation. Tragically, it is confirmed that three Sisters of Mercy and one nun died due to the COVID-19 outbreak. SEC’s refusal to acknowledge the severity of the epidemiological threat led it to become a hotbed of the infection in Minsk. Thousands of people were taking communion from the same spoon during Easter services, despite the leadership of SEC being aware of numerous cases of contracting COVID-19 among nuns. Even after the convent was ordered to close by epidemiological services, public worship still continued secretly, with people coming in through the rear entrance. The story was covered by BBC (in Russian).[1]

Apart from COVID-19, there were numerous testimonies that the sisters of SEC actively promoted the refusal of medical help, including surgeries, therapies, and chemotherapy; instead, they suggested alternative treatments, such as prayer, blessed oil, holy water and herbal teas produced in SEC. This encouragement extended to nuns, lay sisters, parishioners, and those whom they visited pastorally in the hospital.

2. Support for the authoritarian regime and political persecutions

Since 2020, Fr Lemeshonok, the convent’s confessor, has consistently expressed his support for the authoritarian leader Lukashenka and repressions against civil society. The overview can be found in the article, A Convent for Glory of the Dictator (in Russian)[2].

After nationwide peaceful protests, Fr Lemeshonok recorded a video[3] on 15 August 2020 which was syndicated by the regime media. In the video, he said:

The fact that the police and law enforcement agencies somewhere exceeded their authority and there was violence on the streets is bad. On the other hand, how many casualties were there among the police and soldiers? The hospital surgeon said that soldiers with wounds, with arms torn off, were brought in for several days. [08:18-08:58]

This was fake news: there were no reports of police or soldiers with “arms torn off” ever confirmed. At the same time, there were multiple casualties and even deaths among peaceful protestors who were severely beaten and tortured. Over 40,000 persons suffered from police violence. Fr Lemeshonok’s characterisation of police actions as “somewhere exceeded their authority” was cynical.

During a general meeting of SEC on 18 August 2020, Fr Lemeshonok, made a statement in support of Alexander Lukashenko[4]. He suggested that the protests were caused by a secret conspiracy against the Russian Orthodox Church. According to the priest, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya would introduce gay pride and same-sex marriages in Belarus. In response to parishioners’ objections, Fr Lemeshonok said that he would like everyone in the convent to be like-minded, and whoever does not like it “should not feel obliged to stay… all involved in St Elisabeth’s Convent have one shared opinion about the events taking place in Belarus, one unequivocal interpretation”.

On 22 November 2020, one of the sisters asked what the mother of the son beaten by riot police should do; Fr Lemeshonok replied that she must repent for such a son because the protests were an attempt of coup d’etat. He also praised Muammar al-Gaddafi and behaved aggressively towards the sister who asked the question[5].

In August and September 2020, Siarhey Pazniak, Siarhey Kauryhin and Fr Lemeshonok’s son Dzmitry – all of SEC – were among the main organisers of pro-Lukashenka riots in Minsk[6]. Dzmitry Lemeshonok is a football fan leaning towards far-right ideology; and he has been supporting the Donetsk People’s Republic since 2014[7].

The authoritarian leader of Belarus, Lukashenka, cherishes the Convent leadership’s support. As a sign of his favour, Lukashenka chose to visit the Convent for Christmas 2023 where he spoke on political matters and supported the Convent’s activities in relation to the Russian war against Ukraine:

You are doing the right thing. Don’t pay attention to the dozens or two people paid [for their allegiances]. Not only do we help our Russian brothers, Russians, and I have never hidden this. And my visit to the military, to the Russian military yesterday, openly says that we have supported and continue to support our brothers.[8]

3. Conflict in the Convent and Dismissals

On 18 August 2020, during a general meeting where Fr Lemeshonok demanded the same political opinion, he did not allow a priest, who is another cleric of the Convent, to voice an alternative opinion. Those who tried to express views alternative to Fr Lemeshonok’s were asked to leave the meeting; many did. Another cleric of the convent wrote on his social media that the clergy and parishioners of St Elisabeth’s Convent had various opinions about the political crisis in Belarus[9].

In the months following the general meeting, a significant number of the Convent staff were dismissed or forced to resign from their jobs due to their views, incl. a priest.

On 25 August 2020, over a hundred employees, former employees and parishioners of St Elisabeth Convent wrote a petition[10] to Metropolitan Pavel of Minsk regarding the abuses by the leadership of the Convent related to the politically biased position of the Convent’s confessor, Archpriest Lemeshonok imposed during general meetings, sermons, and media appearances. The petition also alleged that during the coronavirus pandemic, sanitary standards were pointedly ignored in the Convent. Metropolitan Veniamin of Minsk, a newly appointed head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, did not react in a meaningful way. Only in January 2021, he spoke with Fr Lemeshonok and hegumnia Euphrosinia (Laptik); according to the secretary of Minsk Eparchy office, Fr Andrei Volkau, Metropolitan Veniamin claimed that the church pulpit could not be used for making political statements and that epidemiological measures had to be followed.[11]

Several hundred people were dismissed during the pandemic and left without work in order to free the funds for fountains in the Convent.

There have been numerous cases of dismissals and resignations in the Convent on account of disagreement with SEC policies. These are three of those cases:

3.1. Vitali Leanovich, a supply management specialist.

He was dismissed following his speech at the Convent’s general meeting[12].

3.2. Aliaksandr Zhdanovich, actor.

Following his arrest and detention on 8 November 2020, the Convent stopped collaborating on artistic projects with its long-term parishioner, Alexander Zhdanovich. In his interview[13] to Salidarnasć, Zhdanovich said that following the events of 2020, he “regretted to see that the Church was being used for manipulating consciousness and retaining power by unscrupulous people.” Zhdanovich saw “comfortable Orthodoxy with reading akathists and processions of the cross — which are good in themselves — but reluctant to see the real, painful things happening around.”

3.3. Irina Denisova, well-known church composer and musician, former nun Yuliania

Nun Yuliania (Denisova) used to be one of the main “brands” of the Convent. She quit it following the pandemic. Shortly before Easter 2020, a significant number of singers from her choir were diagnosed with Covid, and she opted for the choir to quarantine. She started feeling the first symptoms on Holy Thursday. For ten days she stayed in her room cared for by sisters who couldn’t call the doctor because of the official “no Covid” policy of the Convent leadership. Eventually, her daughter Ksenia came to the Convent and, without the permission of the leadership, took her mother for a CT of her lungs which showed two-sided pneumonia. After that, she was allowed to be hospitalised together with another elderly sister. Although many sisters were sick, the Convent leadership stuck to the “no Covid” policy. Irina Denisova decided to leave the Convent, because, as she said, inconsistencies and hypocrisy dominated her monastic life. Following her decision, Fr Lemeshonok publicly accused Denisova of being delusional and disloyal.

4. Support of the Russian aggression against Ukraine

The Convent has been supporting the Russian military aggression in Ukraine in a number of ways.

4.1. Spiritual leader Fr Andrey Lemeshonok’s propaganda and ideological discourses

SEC spiritual leader, Archpriest Andrey Lemeshonok, regularly speaks on the topics of politics and war in his sermons, at general meetings of the Convent, and during public events, such as concerts, exhibitions, etc. Thanks to regular releases of those speeches on the Convent’s YouTube channel (it has 315,000 subscribers, about 40 million views in total), there is a lot of evidence of his attitude to the war in Ukraine. Many examples have been collected in the article Let’s Work, Sisters. How Nuns from Minsk Help to Kill (In Russian)[14].

For example, the episode of the Tuesday with a Priest program on 1 March 2022 released a few days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine borrows well-known propaganda clichés justifying the occupation of Ukraine, e.g. “Donbas has been bombed for 8 years”; in addition, the priest gave them an additional manipulative ‘Orthodox’ angle. For example, he argued that the current war was inevitable because the West declared Orthodoxy a threat[15].

In the sermon on the memorial day of new martyrs and confessors of the Russian Church in February 2023, Fr Lemeshonok compared Russian soldiers in Ukraine to those martyrs:

About 40 years ago, I read: there will be a time when all the churches would be restored, their domes would shine, but there would be no Spirit in those churches. Therefore, I think the list of confessors and new martyrs of the Russian Church has not been completed. It is still being replenished today. Those guys who give their lives at the front. Those confessors who are in Ukraine today, in spite of everything, do not renounce their birthright and stand for the Holy Russian Orthodox Church hated by the enemy so much.[16]

In a conversation at the Joy Festival organised by SEC on 11 October 2022, Lemeshonok emphasised – with reference to elders and ascetics – that the war was started not by Russia, but the whole world took up arms against Russia (57:25 onwards)[17].

On 3 September 2023,  after the concert of Anna Artamonova who sings on political topics and in support of the war in Ukraine (in some songs, she compares Ukraine with the badly behaving younger brother who then older brother – Russia – has the responsibility to “educate with a belt”), Lemeshonok said the following:

Before this “operation”[18] began – namely, an operation to remove those cancer cells that were already on the body of Russia, Holy Rus’ – it would have seemed that they were incurable. And this, you know, is joy about the present day… Thank God, we have people who are Katechons[19]. Those are Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko. If they weren’t there, nothing would have happened, you know.[20]

In addition to Lemeshonok, there are other priests who express similar views. For example, Fr Sergiy Faley in February 2023 explained the war in Ukraine as the war between the collective evil represented by the West and Russia preventing the end of the world from coming [21].

Also, nuns of SEC are organising events in support of Russia or participating in such. In 2022, nuns led by their confessor walked along Independence Avenue with icons and photographs of World War II veterans, while other participants had USSR flags and Joseph Stalin’ portraits. A video report about the event was published on the Convent’s YouTube channel[22].

In March 2023, the convent published a Z-marked tank photograph on its main webpage [23] and tried to fundraise for Nikolay Gavrilov’s (see 4.3.) in Donbas.

In May 2023, nuns organised a Victory Day event with orange-and-black ribbons, pro-Russian Z-flags[24] and marching with the Soviet Katyusha song[25]. They also held banners “We are Russians, God is with us” and taught children to shoot and play military games[26]. The festivals and concerts in support of wounded Russian soldiers take place with Z-symbols[27].

4.2. Support for and fundraising for the Russian army

Fundraising at SEC is coordinated by nun Alexandra (civil name – Liudmila Liakhova). Blessed by Fr Lemeshonok, she created a group Help to Brothers[28]. On the Russian side, these activities are coordinated by Russian nun Evgenia (Tsivtsivadze) from St Mary Magdalene Convent in Orel oblast in Russia; she received many awards, including the Participant of Special Military Operation medal[29].

An overview of the fundraising activities of SEC was published in the Let’s Work, Sisters. How Nuns from Minsk Help to Kill article (In Russian)[30].

By August 2023, SEC purchased seven cars for the Russian army[31]; in September 2023, there were already nine cars[32]; there were also cases of delivering drones for the Russian army[33].

The Belsat TV channel called the Convent and spoke with nun Alexandra to verify whether the money could be sent to the Russian army for drones; the nun replied:

“We buy what they request. Maybe the money will go towards anti-drone solutions. We buy such equipment, yes. We’ve had this group for a long time, we’ve been helping the military for about a year, especially the military, so don’t worry.”[34]

4.3. The Help to Donbas Group.

The group was created in 2015; it is coordinated by Nikolay Gavrilov[35].

With the support of St Elisabeth Convent, it organises humanitarian assistance for the occupied parts of Donbas – the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, including transportation of children from the Donbas area and publicising anti-Ukraine propaganda narratives. For example, in 2017 the group organised a meeting with the Russian GRU Lieutenant Colonel, Anton Manshin, who participated in military operations in Donbas, as well as in Syria[36]. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Manshin regularly visits other occupied Ukrainian territories, like Mariupol.

Gavrilov was awarded with a letter of gratitude from the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, for his activities[37].

4.4. ‘Patriotic’ upbringing of children

“Eaglets” is the Convent’s youth movement, consisting of pupils of the SEC-run school, Ichthys. An important aspect of CES’s ideology of militarism concerns the so-called ‘patriotic upbringing’ of children. The children are taught, for example, to assemble and disassemble machine guns; this happened, for example, at the youth sports festival Eaglets Learn to Fly in the early autumn of 2022[38]. In 2021, they also learned to put on military clothes and assemble machine guns[39]. Children were encouraged to write letters to Russian soldiers[40].

5. Reactions:

People who previously supported St Elisabeth’s Convent but learnt about its support of the war cease supporting the Convent and ask to ban it from selling goods and fundraising abroad.

  1. Interview with Steve Lacey, an Orthodox believer from the UK, who helped and fundraised for the Convent until he learnt about the endorsement of Lukashenka regime’s mass repressions and war in Ukraine: “It reminds me of ISIS”. In the interview, Lacey talks about his collaboration with St. Elisabeth’s Convent[41].
  2. The stall of St. Elisabeth’s Convent was banned in Winchester (UK) in 2023: Winchester Cathedral Christmas Market: Russian-linked Stall Banned[42].

Due to the bad reputation of the Convent, a new tendency is taking place: its nuns and sisters hide the fact of belonging to the Convent. This happened, for example, at the beginning of September in Częstochowa, Poland; there, neither logo nor banner were used to identify the Convent[43], however, the address printed on goods gave away the Convent[44].

As a springboard into the EU,  the Convent uses legal entities registered in Poland and Germany:

  1. Fundacja Galeria JELISAVIETA w Hajnówce, Poland
  2. Förderverein „Freunde des Hl. Elisabeth Klosters“, Berlin, Germany










[10] Full text of petition in Russian was published here:








[18] The Russian government and propaganda refers to the aggression against Ukraine as a  ‘special military operation’.

[19] 2 Thess. 2:6-7, «ce qui retient»

[20] Video


























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