While church leaders in Belarus appear to be avoiding public issues, Catholics across the country continue to demand the freeing of political prisoners and an end to regime repression.
“Bishops and priests are under pressure not to speak out about human rights, and many believe this follows Vatican recommendations,” Kaciaryna Laurynenka, a Catholic theologian and historian, said in an April 11 interview with Catholic News Service.
“The previous widespread enthusiasm has given way to a more pessimistic attitude, with fewer expectations of change. But while many clergy and laity are afraid to talk openly, much work is being done to help those in need.”
Laurynenka said fears of arrest or deportation among clergy had contributed to “an official impression that the whole country is now quiet,” adding that most Belarus citizens were now “more realistic” about “struggling for change themselves” without outside help.
The lay Catholic spoke as a Sunday Mass was broadcast on state radio April 11 from Minsk’s Blessed Virgin Cathedral; it was the first such broadcast in eight months, in an apparent concession by the government of President Alexander Lukashenko.
However, Ihar Baranouski, an online editor with Belarus’ Eastern Catholic community, said more than 350 internationally recognized political prisoners were still incarcerated in Belarus, where 30,000 people had received “administrative punishments” and more than 2,300 faced criminal charges for participating in protests.
He added that residents of the capital who showed solidarity with protests still risked “severe repression” — including the cutting of water supplies to apartment buildings “allegedly for technical reasons.”
“Harsh, fabricated court verdicts, even for critical remarks on social networks, as well as administrative detentions and heavy fines for wearing the national colors — these have forced Belarus citizens, including Catholic clergy, to be more restrained,” said Baranouski.
“Such brutal repression has certainly affected the mood among Catholics, most of whom realize rapid change can’t be expected. But the possibility of a prayer life in parishes has enabled them to endure these trials in a hopeful Christian way. Many are writing to the imprisoned and offering material support to the families of those fined and convicted, so they don’t feel abandoned and forgotten.”
Conditions have been tense in Belarus since August elections when, after 26 years in power, Lukashenko was proclaimed victor with 80% of votes, provoking mass demonstrations and harsh reactions by the president’s security forces.
In January, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz resigned as president of the Catholic bishops’ conference, 10 days after his return from four months’ exile from Belarus was negotiated by Vatican diplomats.
In an April 2 homily, the 75-year-old archbishop said Belarus bore “the cross of a sociopolitical crisis” and was “going through its Good Friday,” while the apostolic visitor for Eastern Catholics, Father Sergei Gayek, urged church members to “pray for those suffering, in prison and doing good.”
However, in an April 11 interview with Catholic News Service, the bishops’ spokesman, Father Yuri Sanko, said the church was now preoccupied with “pastoral concerns” from the coronavirus pandemic, including the organization of religious education and first Communions. He said a lack of prison chaplains had prevented the church from helping the many people still in jail and detention.
Father Sanko insisted conditions were now quiet, with “none of the confrontation seen earlier.”
“We’re not engaged in talks or expecting further concessions, just speaking and acting in line with our areas of competence,” the bishops’ spokesman told CNS.
“The Catholic Church has always acted to avoid conflicts and isn’t seeking them now.”
Prominent lay Catholics have continued debating current developments in a Facebook group, “Catholics of Belarus.”
In early April, an Orthodox Christian who spent 40 days in prison said Christians had been ordered to remove pectoral crosses in police stations and detention centers, while Christian Vision said prisoners had been denied Bibles, in violation of Belarus’ constitution and treaty commitments.
Laurynenka told CNS many Catholics were shocked Bishop Kazimierz Wielikosielec, administrator of the Minsk-Mohilev Archdiocese since January, had appeared at public ceremonies alongside Lukashenko, but had decided not to protest the bishop’s stance publicly for fearing of “weakening the church’s authority.”
She added that Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, who asked not to “talk about politics” in an April 8 interview with the online Tut.By news agency, could risk arrest or expulsion from the country if he openly criticized regime actions.
Baranouski said church members counted on “solidarity, support and remembrance” from Western Catholics, as well as material help for those injured or forced to emigrate.
“It’s also very important Catholic hierarchies in other countries help draw the Holy Father’s attention to the legal and humanitarian crisis here,” Baranouski told CNS. “We need their help in highlighting the unhealthy atmosphere brought by fabricated charges, arrests, detentions and dismissals which recall Stalin’s repressions in the 1930s.”