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Three years after disputed election, Belarus church is urged to speak up for the persecuted

People with historic white-red-white flags of Belarus over their shoulders take part in Belarusians' march through Warsaw, Poland, Aug. 9, 2023, on the third anniversary of the 2020 presidential election, which was followed by mass protests over alleged electoral fraud. (OSV News photo/Kacper Pempel, Reuters)

(OSV News) — A Christian campaigner has urged Catholic church leaders and the Vatican to condemn worsening human rights abuses in Belarus, after another Catholic priest was arrested in front of his parishioners for spreading “extremist material.”

“Far from hiding their violence, the police are now highlighting it — to show no one is protected and to instill a climate of fear,” said Natallia Vasilevich, who is director of Belarus’ ecumenical Christian Vision organization, operating in exile from Germany, and an Orthodox theologian and a human rights lawyer.

“Some people think speaking out will escalate the conflict — and we shouldn’t judge those effectively held hostage inside the country. But the church and Vatican have a significant influence and should be promoting freedom from persecution. For Christians, it’s devastating when they say nothing,” Vasilevich told OSV News.

The Orthodox theologian spoke as a priest from Pervomaisk’s Exaltation of the Holy Cross Parish, Father Antoni Adamovich, was freed pending incitement charges after being arrested Aug. 13 while leaving church after Sunday Mass.

A spokesman for Belarus’ Grodno Diocese, Father Yury Martynovich, told OSV News from curia offices on the western city’s Karl Marx Street that the priest had faced “standard accusations” but was now back at home, adding that fellow clergy were “praying daily to conduct their mission in peace.”

However, Vasilevich said the church’s “total lack of public support” for Catholics facing “threats and violence” had caused many to leave the country.

She added that Christian Vision had been asked by the church not to publish news of anti-Catholic measures, but had been notified of Father Adamovich’s arrest by eyewitnesses.

“When even small-scale resistance means a lot, it’s significant that parishioners prevented his detention during Mass — although they may not have realized the repression this could bring down on them,” Vasilevich said.

“Although public statements may not change much, some people are choosing to react anyway, knowing that failing to do so means betraying those facing persecution,” she said.

The Catholic Church, whose members make up a 10th of Belarus’s population of 9.4 million, has not reacted publicly to mistreatment of citizens opposing the 29-year rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, since one of its former leaders, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk-Mohilev, was made to retire in January 2021 after being temporarily barred from reentering the country. The church has silently sided with protesters in the outbreak of political unrest after the August 2020 reelection of Lukashenko, accepting protesters in churches.

In an Aug. 17 report, Christian Vision named 22 Catholic priests targeted for “persecution” since Lukashenka’s disputed Aug. 2020 re-election, as well as 19 Orthodox clergy, 14 Protestants and five pastors from Belarus’s small Greek Catholic Church.

Among recent cases, a priest from Novogrudok’s St. Michael the Archangel Church, Father Yury Zhegarin, was fined and had his telephone confiscated Jul. 17 after reposting a radio report on social media.

Two other young priests, Father Yury Reshetko and Father Valery Dovgil, both fled Belarus after being detained and beaten when police raided Minsk’s Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral during Mass July 13.

The cathedral’s 23-year rector, Father Antoni Klimatovich, was transferred to another parish at Zaslavl a week earlier, after being interrogated by police and attacked by state media.

In her OSV News interview, Vasilevich said Archbishop Iosif Staneusky of Minsk-Mohilev had “continued as if nothing was happening,” according to congregation members, when Father Reshetko and Father Dovgil were seized during the Juy 13 cathedral Mass.

She added that the submissive stance of Belarus’ Catholic bishops contrasted with that of the Protestant church, whose leaders publicly protested when a pastor, Vyacheslav Goncharenko, was jailed Aug. 14 for complaining about anti-religious actions, including the bulldozing of a chapel in June.

“We’re aware of the responsibility placed on us in reporting such cases, since what we write and show could make someone’s position worse,” the Christian Vision director told OSV News.

“We also know many people think this isn’t the time for conflict with the government. But it would be good if church leaders could act as witnesses and be more radical in their Christian faith.”

Besides regular clergy arrests, a new law titled “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations,” due for enactment in September, is expected to tighten control over church communities by requiring them to re-register, and giving state officials stronger powers to ban groups deemed to violate legal conditions.

In a June 12 statement, the Catholic bishops’ conference warned the proposed law would “fundamentally change” legal regulations on “the right to freedom of conscience” and “complicate the dynamics of state-confessional relations.”

The statement added that the Catholic Church would “face difficulties” implementing the law’s proposed ban on minority languages and curbs on monastic communities, pilgrimages and religious literature, as well as its tightened controls over religious education.

The Vatican’s apostolic nunciature in Minsk did not respond to an OSV News inquiry about the law’s implications, while the bishops’ spokesman, Father Yuri Sanko, was unavailable for comment Aug. 17-19.

A Catholic priest now exiled in neighboring Poland, Father Vyacheslav Barok, told OSV News he also had been told not to make public statements by Bishop Oleg Butkevich of Vitebsk.

However, a prominent lay Catholic said there were doubts the bishops’ reservations would be taken into account when the Belarus National Assembly met to approve the religion law.

He added that a priest who drafted the bishops’ statement had been arrested in July after “negative, pejorative reports” in the state media, and said church leaders appeared set on “continuing their silence” for fear of “even harsher repression.”

“If the new legislation is rigorously applied, the church will face many new problems — particularly through having to re-register all its parishes and communities,” said Artiom Tkaczuk, a Catholic social worker also living in Poland. “The documentation may not be accepted by the authorities because of some minor flaw, and this will certainly be used as an instrument of influence and control.”

The new religion law and clergy arrests were not mentioned in a church report on the June 28-July 2 Minsk visit by Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, which said talks with state and government officials had been “meaningful and constructive” despite “certain differences in views and approaches.”

In her OSV News interview, Vasilevich said outside attention on Belarus had waned during the Ukraine war, adding that there was “no evidence” Vatican diplomacy and the bishops’ policy of silence had provided “greater protection or improved conditions” for Catholics.

“Given the growing police violence and near impossibility of gaining legal representation, many people have understandably adopted a minimalist attitude in their efforts to survive,” the Christian Vision director said.

“But the Vatican is outside Belarus and has instruments and measures available. We’re told they are making full use of these. But while we see no results at all, it’s difficult to trust these claims,” Vasilevich added.

Belarus’ estimated 1,500 political prisoners include numerous lay Catholics, as well as human rights campaigner Ales Bialiatski, winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.

Jonathan Luxmoore writes for OSV News from Oxford, England.

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