Friday, April 12, 2024
Бiльше

    Lukashenka on crusade against Roman Catholic Church

    Ever since the anti-government protests of 2020, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has attempted to control all parts of society. This is even true regarding the local branch of the Catholic Church, whose members continue to criticize the regime.

    That’s according to New Eastern Europe.

    December 17th marked Pope Francis’s 86th birthday. On that day, the Holy Father was congratulated by messages from heads of state from all over the world. Among these was one from Belarus’s Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Together with sending his best wishes, Lukashenka invited the pope to visit Belarus and expressed faith in their joint efforts for peace in the region. But beyond fine words, the Roman Catholic Church is now having a hard time in Belarus.

    Last year was in fact an annus horribilis in Belarus and not just because of the implications of the war in Ukraine, but because of the mounting domestic crackdown. During the last twelve months, Belarusian authorities have passed a series of restrictive decrees ranging from the arbitrary deprivation of Belarusian citizenship for government critics to amendments to the death penalty. The Roman Catholic Church has not been spared from this repressive environment.

    Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church has been subject to intensifying pressure exerted by the authorities since the 2020 rigged presidential elections. This is due to its dissenting voice against human rights violations. As protesters suffered bloody repressions in late summer 2020, the church could not remain silent. During the Sunday Angelus on August 16th 2020, Pope Francis himself called for dialogue and an end to the violence.

    Catholics started to be persecuted for trivial reasons such as singing “Mahutny Boža” (Магутны Божа)“Mahutny Boža” is a hymn written in 1943 by Belarusian poet Natallia Arsiennieva. Even though Arsiennieva’s text does not seem to be an extremist one, Arsiennieva was the wife of Francišak Kušal, a Belarusian collaborationist and head of the Belarusian Home Defence during the Second World War. Indeed, this sort of repression must be understood as a part of Lukashenka’s rhetoric on the Great Patriotic War, which nowadays has become the means through which the present is understood in Belarus.

    Still, 2022 proved to be even harder. Because of the Belarusian authorities’ role, the war in Ukraine has triggered a new wave of outspoken criticism and, again, suppression. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church has once again criticized and challenged the authorities because of their support for the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine. As recorded by the Viasna Human Rights Centre, priests of different faiths are being prosecuted by the regime and can be defined as political prisoners.

    For instance, the priest Alexander Baran from Lyntupy was detained and charged under Article 24.23, as he had posted the flag of Ukraine and the Belarusian opposition’s white-red-white flag on social media. The same fate lay in store for the priest Andrei Kevlich. He was detained last year after Easter mass and fined, as his avatar on his social networks was decorated with the colours of the Ukrainian flag. In late December the regime did not extend permission for the Polish priest Józef Gęza to serve in Hrodna.

    Several priests have even been forced to leave the country. That was the case for Andrzej Bulczak from the Vitebsk region, who has been accused of distributing extremist materials. Bulczak was charged with extremism because of a short video he had published on YouTube. This video showed a Belarusian girl writing a letter to the Poles and explaining that people in Belarus are against the war together with the white-red-white flag and Belsat’s logo (a Polish television channel that was declared extremist in 2021).

    The regime has even gone further by confiscating the Red Church in Minsk from its believers since the church provided shelter for protesters who were hiding from the police during the 2020 protests. On August 31, 2020, the church was closed off and Archbishop Kondrusevich was not allowed to enter Belarus as he was returning home from Poland. After some talks between Lukashenka and delegations from the Vatican, Kondrusevich was let into Belarus but was forced to resign from his post. After the Red Church was set on fire in September 2022, the following month saw the Belarusian authorities decide to permanently seize the most prominent Catholic site in Minsk.

    While some analysts have regarded the authorities’ repression of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus as part of the re-Sovietisation of the country, Lukashenka’s regime is not looking for gosateizm (“state atheism”). Even though the Belarusian Exarchate has been subject to repression too, Lukashenka has declared that God is on his side and has recently met Russian Patriarch Kirill. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church visited Minsk in June 2022 on the 1030th anniversary of Orthodoxy’s spread to the Belarusian lands. This symbolic visit also marks Russia’s deepening influence over the Belarusian authorities through one of its oldest foreign policy tools (i.e., the Orthodox Church).

    Indeed, the repression of the Roman Catholic Church has nothing to do with re-Sovietisation and must be looked at through different lenses. First, the Roman Catholic Church represents an institution with a clear western tradition. In light of the current idiosyncrasy between the Belarusian authorities and the West, Catholics are being depicted as new “foreign agents” and have been more subject to repression than any other faith in the country. Back in 2020, the director of the Russian SVR Sergey Naryshkin even used to say that the United States was using Catholics and Protestants as a provocation in Belarus.

    According to government data, around 7% of the whole population in Belarus is Catholic, making Catholics the second-largest religious community in the Eastern European country after Orthodoxy. This data includes both Latin Rite dioceses and a tiny minority of the Byzantine Rite linked to the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church. Among the Catholics, most believers are of Polish origin, which actually provides yet another explanation for the repression carried out by the Belarusian authorities at a time in which relations between Poland and Belarus are extremely strained.

    Second, the church is just seen as another institution that is challenging central authority given its pleas for peace and non-violence. Still, while Lukashenka is depicting Catholics as the new enemies of the state, the Vatican prefers not to spoil its relationship with the regime rather than speak up against this repression.

    Beyond rhetoric, as the Vatican has shown insufficient support for the Belarusian Catholic community, Lukashenka is now able to teach the church a lesson regarding what religious institutions can and cannot do within the country. Indeed, as declared by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, “the regime is so scared of any protests against the war that it tries to silence even the Church.”

    Fresh

    Popular