Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Priests reportedly detained in Belarus

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Authorities in Belarus have reportedly detained two Catholic priests in the space of a week.

Fr. Henryk Okołotowicz, a pastor in the town of Volozhyn, was held Nov. 17, according to Polish media

Fr. Viachaslau Pialinak was detained after a morning Mass Nov. 22, the human rights monitoring group Christian Vision for Belarus reported.

Christian Vision said that Pialinak served as the first personal secretary of the then Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti after the Italian prelate was appointed apostolic nuncio to Belarus in 2011. 

Gugerotti, who is now prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, ended his service in Belarus in 2015 and was made a cardinal in September this year.

The monitoring group said that Pialinak, a member of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, was detained for unknown reasons after a morning Mass in the city of Brest. The 48-year-old priest’s cell phone and laptop were reportedly seized by security forces, who maintain a tight grip on the Eastern European country.

Belarus, a nation of more than 9 million people bordered by Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine, has been led by the authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko since 1994.

Tensions between Church and state rose following a disputed presidential election in 2020. After Lukashenko claimed victory with over 80% of the vote, there were mass protests, followed by a police crackdown. 

Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the country’s most prominent Catholic leader, was prevented from returning to Belarus after a trip to Poland. He was only able to return months later, following a Vatican intervention, but retired from his post of Archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev shortly afterward.

Belarus has become increasingly tightly linked with Russia since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Belarus hosted Russian troops, who invaded Ukraine across its border, which runs close to Kyiv.  

Catholics, who are a minority in the predominantly Eastern Orthodox country, have experienced repeated difficulties with the authorities in the past three years. There are periodic reports of priests being arrested. But it is hard to determine the extent of the problem as press freedom is restricted in Belarus.

Orthodox and Protestant Christians have also had numerous brushes with the authorities, according to Christian Vision.

The Belarusian government insists that it is engaged in a battle against “extremism.” But human rights activists say the concept is loosely defined and applied to any actions, public statements, or social media posts deemed critical of the authorities. 

State media often stress the strong ties between Belarus and the Holy See. Full diplomatic relations were established between the two sovereign entities in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to which Belarus belonged.

Gugerotti visited Belarus in June this year, meeting with the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Aleinik.

“The parties reaffirmed their commitment to furthering the Belarusian-Vatican cooperation and strengthening the interfaith dialogue, peace and harmony,” a statement said at the time.

Belarus’ Catholic bishops attended a Nov. 21-22 plenary assembly in the town of Novogrudok. An official statement said that they discussed the translation of liturgical texts and youth ministry, as well as “other current issues from the life of the Church in Belarus.”