BELARUS: Another Catholic priest banned from serving


Date:                     September 23, 2020


Belarus' senior state religious affairs official gave the Catholic bishop
of Vitebsk one day's notice that he was annulling permission for Polish
priest Jerzy Wilk to serve in his parish, giving no reason. Fr Wilk has
served in Belarus since 2003. The State Border Committee told Archbishop
Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz he was denied re-entry because his Belarusian
passport was invalid. The Interior Ministry then said it was checking if he
gained citizenship lawfully.

BELARUS: Another Catholic priest banned from serving
By Olga Glace, Forum 18

Without any explanation, Belarus' senior state religious affairs official
Leonid Gulyako abruptly cancelled the permission for Polish Catholic priest
Fr Jerzy Wilk to continue serving his parish in the north-eastern Vitebsk
Region. Gulyako gave his bishop one day's notice of the cancellation, which
came into effect on 3 September, half way through the one-year period for
which Fr Wilk had earlier been given permission.

Fr Wilk – who has been working in Belarus since 2003 - said he has no
idea why the state permission for him to work as a priest was cancelled. He
added that about 500 parishioners had written to Plenipotentiary Gulyako
asking him to withdraw his decision. "They are all very good and kind
people," he told Forum 18 (see below).

The Head of Religious and Ethnic affairs Department of the
Plenipotentiary's Office Andrey Aryaev refused to explain to Forum 18 why
Fr Wilk's right to work as a priest was suddenly revoked (see below).

Pyotr Gnutenko, Head of Vitebsk Region Ideology Department, denied that the
regional Executive Committee initiated the move to strip Fr Wilk of
permission to undertake religious work. "This is the first time I have
heard this name [Fr Wilk]. Such decisions are
entirely within Gulyako's power and are difficult for the communities which
have invited them to challenge.

In recent years Plenipotentiary Gulyako has repeatedly accused foreign
Catholic priests of violating the law, including allegedly by speeding,
involvement in political activity, and poor command of the Belarusian
language. He has
rejected applications from Catholic and Orthodox bishops for priests from
abroad to come to work in the country or to continue working in the

The Head of Religious and Ethnic affairs Department of the
Plenipotentiary's Office Andrey Aryaev refused to explain why Fr Wilk's
right to work as a priest was suddenly revoked. "We do not give any
comments on this issue," Aryaev told Forum 18 from Minsk on 16 September,
before putting the phone down.

If the Plenipotentiary decides to give permission for a foreign religious
worker to work, the regional Executive Committee's [local authorityh) (usually three months, six
months or one year).

On 16 September Forum 18 asked the Ideology Department of Vitebsk Region
Executive Committee whether the sudden order to stop Fr Wilk working as a
priest was initiated by the Executive Committee. Pyotr Gnutenko, Head of
the Ideology Department denied this. "This is the first time I have heard
this name [Fr Wilk).

Catholic Archbishop to be made stateless?

On 31 August border guards denied Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, head of
Belarus' Catholic Church, re-entry to his own country. No officials
explained to Archbishop Kondrusiewicz – a Belarusian citizen – why he
is barred (. "The right
of a citizen to enter the Republic of Belarus cannot be restricted," says
the Law on Exit and Entry for Belarusian Citizens.

President Aleksandr Lukashenko said on 1 September that the archbishop is
on the shared Belarus/Russia entry ban list.

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz wrote to the State Border Committee seeking an
explanation for the denial of entry. Committee Chair Major-General Anatoly
Lappo responded to him in early September, the Church website noted on 14

"We inform you that you were not allowed through the state border in
connection with a decision taken by the internal affairs agencies on the
recognition of the passport of a Belarusian citizen No. news website
that the cancellation of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz's passport does not mean
his citizenship has been annulled. However, he added that it had been
annulled because officials are checking whether Archbishop Kondrusiewicz is
eligible for citizenship or not.

"The Interior Ministry is at present simply checking up on whether he is a
citizen of the Republic of Belarus and the documents he presented when
going through the procedure of naturalisation," Begun stated.

Begun claimed that Archbishop Kondrusiewicz was one of more than a thousand
people whose citizenship is checked each year. He said in his case the
checks began before his visit to Poland in August, and that "this was just
a coincidence". He added that the Ministry had received Archbishop
Kondrusiewicz's letter and would respond to him.

The Interior Ministry on 22 September refused to answer Forum 18's
questions as they claimed they cannot answer without consulting their
Citizenship and Migration Department. They "will not tell you anything"
without a written inquiry, the official who refused to give her name

The Citizenship and Migration Department refused to answer any of Forum
18's questions on 23 September.

The Presidential Administration did not answer their telephones on 22

The 74-year-old Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, a native of Belarus who only has
Belarusian citizenship, renounced Russian citizenship in 2008, the year
after his return to Belarus after serving in Moscow for 16 years. In 2008
he was given residence in Belarus, and finally gained citizenship in 2016,
Fr Yuri Sanko told Forum 18.

Catholic and ecumenical support for Archbishop

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz has had support from other Christian Churches,
clergy and laypeople within Belarus. The Pentecostal Union "expressed
outrage" at the denial of re-entry in a a 1 September statement on the
Union's website signed by Bishop Leonid Voronenko said.

Fr Sergei Lepin, spokesperson for the Orthodox Church, said on his Facebook
page on 1 September that it would not be making an official comment on the
denial of re-entry to Archbishop Kondrusiewicz. However, Fr Lepin added his
personal support for the Archbishop and wished "the Catholic community of
Belarus the successful resolution of the misunderstanding that has arisen",
which he described as "strange and dangerous". "I hope for the speedy
reunion of the Catholic flock with its hierarch."

In the western city of Grodno, Orthodox priest Fr Georgy Roy attended a
prayer service for Archbishop Kondrusiewicz's return at the Catholic parish
church. He agreed with the Catholics that the denial of re-entry to the
Archbishop is unjust.

"This should not have happened," Fr Roy told on 15 September.
"As a sign of solidarity, we came to the church to say that we support the
Catholic community, that we share its concern over this situation, and that
we hope that such an unjust decision will soon be cancelled."

On 16 September, the District Court in the western town of Lida fined
Aleksandr Shor after officials found him praying at the Catholic church.
Judge Maksim Filatov fined him 270 Belarusian Roubles (980 Norwegian
Kroner, 90 Euros, or 105 US Dollars), Anzhelika Borys, head of the Union of
Poles in Belarus, who was present in court, noted on her Facebook page the
same day.

"The Judge asks what were you doing at the church in Lida? Answer - I
prayed. Who did you pray for? For the return of his Excellency Tadeusz
Kondrusiewicz," Borys quoted the exchange in court.

National radio suddenly halts Sunday Mass broadcasts

On 23 August, and without prior announcement, the state-controlled Radio
Belarus unexpectedly stopped broadcasting Catholic Mass on Sundays. "We
were not given the reasons, we were only told that there will be no radio
Mass in September," Fr Yuri Sanko of the Catholic Bishops' Conference told
Forum 18 on 16 September.

A 40-minute Mass had routinely been broadcast nationwide every Sunday
morning from the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the capital Minsk,
followed by a brief news summary from Vatican Radio.

A priest of the Cathedral, Fr Antony Klimantovich, told the Catholic Church
website on 9 September that all the technical equipment for broadcasting
from the Cathedral is functioning, and "the signal is strong but there's no

The programme schedule on the official state Radio 1 website still contains
a weblink to the regular "Catholic sermon" but the link no longer works.

Since the 1990s the broadcast Sunday Mass has been widely listened to by
many Catholics, especially those who are elderly, sick, or living in rural
areas far from a Catholic church. For many, the nationwide state radio
broadcast is their only chance every Sunday to join with their fellow
Catholics meeting for worship.

Fr Misevich, Chancellor of Vitebsk Diocese, pointed out that Sunday Mass on
the radio is especially important during the coronavirus pandemic, when
many people are not allowed to leave homes to attend Mass. The state
stopping Sunday Mass broadcasts "is a strong blow against sick and old
people in all dioceses in Belarus," he told Forum 18.

A Catholic from Minsk Region explained that her bed-ridden grandmother
living in a village used to listen to the live Mass broadcast on the radio
every Sunday. "Now there are no broadcasts any longer it makes her suffer,
because it is the only opportunity for her to be together with the Church,"
the Catholic told on 4 September.

The state broadcaster Belteleradio refused to answer Forum 18's questions
or say when broadcasts of Sunday Mass will be resumed. "It is difficult to
answer these questions," an official who refused to give her name told
Forum 18 on 22 September. "I need to collect the information."

No individual or belief community is able to have a religious FM
broadcasting band radio station, despite several attempts. One such example is
the Catholic Church's attempts to get permission for Radio Mariya.
(Belarus' Radio Mariya is unrelated to Radio Maryja in neighbouring
Poland.) No official is prepared to take responsibility for dealing with
such applications.

Radio Mariya is part of an international Italian network, and the regime's
refusal to give it a broadcasting licence means it can only be heard in
Belarus via the internet.

"Prayers on our radio are always in demand," Radio Mariya volunteer Evgenia
Naidovich told Forum 18 on 16 September. "Many of our listeners are almost
deaf, others are blind, and cannot use smartphones. Many do not have a
computer or a telephone, or cannot afford the internet."

Naidovich added that people with internet access also want to listen to
Radio Mariya on a radio. She insisted that the state should allow listeners
to listen to Radio Mariya in the way they find most comfortable.

Minsk's Red Church "now open during its regular hours"

Minsk's historical Catholic Church of Saints Simon and Helena (known
locally due to its brickwork as the Red Church) – which is located on the
city's central Independence Square where demonstrations have been taking
place since the disputed presidential elections in August – has faced
repeated problems from the state.

The state has given the parish large financial demands for building work it
did not agree to and which it cannot afford. It is unclear why this parish
is facing these demands, as no other religious community has faced them.
City officials refused to explain to Forum 18 the large sums demanded.

On 26 August, OMON riot police violently pushed into the Church people
demonstrating against the falsification of the presidential election

In the days afterwards, unknown officials changed the locks on the Church
and the electricity was often cut off. The protests near the Church have
now ended. "The Church is now open during its regular hours and Mass is
celebrated five times a day," a parishioner who wished to remain unnamed
told Forum 18 on 22 September. (END)

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