( dpa ) - The parents of Misha, 10, and Pavel, 12, were appalled. According to stern police escorting the shamefaced youngsters home, the two Belarusian boys had been actively practicing religion.
Both sons of solid middle-class families in the Belarusian capital Minsk, the pair, whose family preferred not to be named in the media, had according to law enforcers been celebrating Christmas in public, specifically by singing carols from door to door in apartment buildings.
The pursuit is harmless in most places, but in authoritarian Belarus most organized religion is actively repressed by the state, and if it is popular or earns someone money, then even the secret police, still known as the KGB, can target the activity.
Most slammed the door in the boys' faces, but more than a few neighbours in the central Minsk city district forked over food, candy, and even cash to the enterprising youngsters. They spent it on vodka and cigarettes, leading to noisy behaviour by Misha and Pavel in public, arrest by Minsk security forces, and very unpleasant scenes with their parents.
"We were just absolutely shocked," Misha's Mother told a Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa reporter. "To think our boys were being religious!"
Though by statistics in an overwhelmingly Christian Orthodox country, most Belarusians in the past espoused the Soviet-era tradition of no faith at all, and treating religion as something to be avoided if one doesn't want trouble with the authorities.
During 2007, Aleksander Lukashenko, Belarus' ruler and president, unleased KGB enforcers on churches of even a few dozen Evangelical Christians, citing alleged threats to national security.
Yet as even Misha's Mother conceded, religion is these days one of the few ways to generate some personal income in cash-strapped Belarus these days. And despite Lukashenko's antagonism towards the Evangelicals, even the government getting in on the act.
Bel-1, Belarus' state-owned television channel, every half hour runs upbeat ads offering suffering Belarusians resolution of practically any any problem, physical or mental, through the judicious use of magic or tarot cards or in bad cases both.
The country's top television news reader Viktoria Senkevich is also one of Belarus'' best-known enthusiasts for new wave beliefs. Once an hour during TV commercial breaks, sometimes during her own newscasts, the normally strictly-attired Senkevich appears wearing white overalls and a floppy-eared hat, and assures viewers, "I believe in magic numbers, but only white ones."
A pay number for Belarusians interested in more information about the benefits of numerology is available at the bottom of the screen.
"On every corner you have kiosks and stores selling Christian candles and icons, Chinese incense and prayer sticks, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and even shamanist stones." grumbled autoworker Viatcheslav Riashentsev, 38. "It's getting so a man has no idea which holiday to celebrate."
"It's easier to get invited into some kind of new age religious meeting in Minsk these days, than it was to go to a Communist party meeting during the Soviet Union," he added.
The bedrock of Lukashenko's Belarus' silent majority, Soviet-era pensioners and retirees, often express amazement that in a country where religion was supposedly made obsolete, and central planning still runs the economy, these days even "crazy beliefs" are in demand.
"I was brought up in the school of the philosopher Karl Marx, and we were always taught 'religion is the opiate of the masses'," said Tatiana Orlova, a senior professor at Belgoruniversitet University in Minsk.
"Yet these days clearly somehow people seem to want this stuff," she said.
The Belarusian fashion for a belief upgrade may even have struck Lukashenko himself. Though a former collective farm boss, and when he took over the country in a 1996 coup an outspoken atheist, in recent year-end holidays the former collective farm boss met publicly with the head Belarus' Orthodox Church, and in his end-of-the-year speech wished his fellow citizens the assistance of the Almighty.
"Although theoretically the church is separated from our state, these days there is not a single major event organized by our leaders, that doesn't also have a member of the Belarusian religious elite present," pointed out political scientist Anatoly Lebedko.
"We have harvest holidays, Soviet holidays, rain holidays, holiday concerts honouring Lukashenko, and memorials for people killed in accidents," he said. "And the priests are always there, and before that was unthinkable."