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Wave of arrests continue for Belarus Catholics facing new restrictions

Clergymen carry candles during the annual feast of the Icon of the Mother of God procession July 5, 2019, in the village of Budslav, Belarus. The government of the East European country plans to enforce a new Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations law, which will restrict educational and missionary activity by churches and require all parishes to reapply for legal status. The law was signed Dec. 30, 2023, by President Alexander Lukashenko and published Jan. 5, 2024. (OSV News photo/Vasily Fedosenko, Reuters)

(OSV News) — Priests and lay Catholics from Belarus said they still hope their church’s situation will improve, despite the continued arrests of clergy and new religious restrictions that are imminent.

“Priests are being targeted on various pretexts, and many Catholics feel pressured and harassed,” explained Father Dzmitry Prystupa, from Baranavichy in Belarus’ southern Diocese of Pinsk.

“It’s painful that there’s no free speech in our church — and that the good news, so strongly linked with truth and justice, has to be announced selectively, subject to official surveillance and verification. But I still think we should trust our church’s leaders to do their best,” he said.

The priest spoke amid the country’s plans to enforce a new Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations law, signed Dec. 30 by President Alexander Lukashenko and published Jan. 5, which will restrict educational and missionary activity by churches and require all parishes to reapply for legal status.

In an OSV News interview, Father Prystupa said fellow clergy were still coming to terms with the law’s implications, adding that he regretted that Lukashenko’s regime only thought “in a narrative of political opposition.”

Meanwhile, a prominent lay Catholic said the Belarus bishops’ conference had analyzed the law when it was being drafted last June, but had not yet offered advice on how church communities should prepare for it.

“In coming months, meetings should be held to guide parish rectors through the new procedures,” Artiom Tkaczuk, a social worker now living in neighboring Poland, told OSV News.

“But the whole legal system in Belarus is unpredictable — so while church leaders will be studying the new law’s detailed provisions, they’ll also be trying to anticipate what the regime hopes to achieve with it,” Tkaczuk said.

Besides obliging communities to re-register their founding charters or face liquidation, the law will prohibit religious activities deemed to harm “health and morals,” infringe Belarus’ “sovereignty, constitutional system and civil harmony,” or “humiliate national honor and dignity.”

Parental applications will be required for children seeking catechism classes at churches, while parish office-holders must have their addresses and personal data registered.

In a June 12 statement, the bishops warned the law would “complicate the dynamics of state-confessional relations,” adding that the Catholic Church would “face difficulties” observing its tightened controls over religious education, as well as its accompanying ban on minority languages and curbs on monastic communities, pilgrimages and religious literature.

The law also was criticized by United Nations rapporteurs, who cautioned in August it could “fail to meet Belarus’ obligations under international human rights law.”

The Catholic Church, making up a 10th of Belarus’ population of 9.4 million, has not reacted publicly to mistreatment of citizens since its leader, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, was made to retire in January 2021 after being temporarily barred from the country.

However, dozens of clergy from various denominations have also faced arrest, while in a Jan. 10 statement, the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need said Belarus now ranked second in the world after Nicaragua for the number of arrested Catholic priests, with 10 detained on extremism and treason charges in 2023, along with many lay Catholics.

On Jan. 24, a well-known Catholic journalist, Oksana Yuczkavich, working recently for the church’s Catholic.By news service, was detained on unspecified charges. Another prominent lay Catholic, Piotr Rudkovsky, was accused of conspiracy in late January over his cooperation with Belarus’ opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Meanwhile, three priests arrested in November included Polish native Father Henryk Okolotovich, rector of St. Joseph’s Parish at Volozhin, northwest of Minsk, who also remains in detention on unknown charges.

Tkaczuk said clergy from Father Okolotovich’s Minsk-Mohilev Archdiocese had prayed for him at a December meeting, while Curia officials also had sought information about the 63-year-old’s fate.

In the face of new arrests, Tkaczuk told OSV News that with the new law, “it’s clear we must now prepare for a fresh wave of systemic pressure across our four dioceses.”

Russia has gained military and logistical support for its invasion of Ukraine from Lukashenko, whose disputed August 2022 reelection after 26 years in power was followed by harsh repression and international sanctions.

Up to half a million Belarus citizens have since left the country, while 1,413 political prisoners are currently incarcerated, including Ales Bialiatski, winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, according to a Jan. 16 report by the Minsk-based Viasna Human Rights Center. The report said 1,603 people had been convicted in 2023 “in politically motivated criminal cases.”

Tkaczuk added that Catholics living abroad had demanded “more open testimony” against repression from Belarus’ Catholic bishops, but said “important developments” were occurring “outside the public sphere,” with an extensive self-help network in local parish communities.

Meanwhile, Father Prystupa said he also understood frustration at the church’s current silence, but added that Catholics in the country understood the risks of speaking out.

“With all media under strict regime control and priests routinely intimidated by security agents, it simply isn’t possible to say anything about arrests and detentions,” Father Prystupa told OSV News.

“But we know the fate of martyrs has always provided a seed, so we should trust in God’s will. For now, instead of fighting in vain, we should focus on proclaiming the Gospel and following Christ, the church’s first duty.”

The bishops’ conference spokesman, Father Yuri Sanko, declined OSV News requests to comment on the new religious restrictions, which have not been mentioned on the church’s Catholic.By website.

Jonathan Luxmoore writes for OSV News from Oxford, England.

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