Belarus: Political Tensions Lead to Problems for the Catholic Archbishop. Archbishop Kondrusiewicz Deprived of Belarusian Passport
The following is a report earlier today from Minsk, the quite beautiful capital of Belarus, where I was able to visit Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz — who had formerly been the brave and tireless archbishop of the Catholic Church in Moscow — for a week-long conference in 2014 (link):
Minsk, September 14, Interfax — Head of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, who was traveling from Poland, has been denied entry to Belarus due to an invalid passport, the official website of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus said, citing the response received from the Belarusian State Border Committee.
“The letter signed by Belarusian State Border Committee Chairman Anatoly Lappo indicates the following reason why border guards have not allowed the metropolitan of Minsk and Mogilev to enter Belarus: ‘Please be advised that you have been prohibited from crossing the state border due to the Interior Ministry’s decision to invalidate your passport, that of a citizen of the Republic of Belarus, (passport number),'” a statement on the website said.
Kondrusiewicz was denied entry into Belarus from Poland on August 31 without explanation.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that Kondrusiewicz was denied entry as “he had received an assignment in Poland.”
The Conference of Catholic Bishops said later that the ban on the return of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, a citizen of Belarus, contravenes the current legislation.
And here is a second report from the same site (link):
Catholics organize procession in Minsk to stop “persecution of the Church,” to bring back Kondrusiewicz
Minsk, September 14, Interfax — A procession of believers from every Catholic diocese of Minsk took place on the premises of the Holy Trinity Church on Friday to pray for the end of “persecution of the Church” and the return of Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz to Belarus.
According to the statement published on the official website of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus, the procession was organized by believers from the oldest Catholic diocese of Minsk and their senior priest Yury Sanko, while the joint prayer was led by Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Minsk and Mogilev, Bishop Yury Kosobutsky.
“Bishop Kosobutsky said that the illegal ban on the return of Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz dealt a blow to the entire Catholic community of the country, which was left without its leader,” the statement said.
Kosobutsky highlighted the need for self-improvement and the impermissibility of judging others. “The hierarch said that the song by Viktor Tsoi about the desire of change had lately become very popular and noted that everyone should start the change from oneself, in one’s heart. A prayer, solidarity, and a kind attitude to all people without exception, including those who offend you, help do that,” the statement said.
Head of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz was denied crossing into Belarus from Poland on August 31 without explanation.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that Kondrusiewicz had been denied entry to Belarus as “he had received an assignment in Poland.”
The Conference of Catholic Bishops said later that the ban on the return of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, a citizen of Belarus, contravened the current legislation.
A talk with the exiled archbishop: “We must pray”
I called Archbishop Kondrusiewicz and reached him in Poland.
He said that he is fine, but that he would like to return to pastor his flock in Minsk.
He said he was surprised when he was not permitted to return to Minsk after traveling to Poland in August “to attend the First Communion of the daughter of my niece.”
He said he is praying for a peaceful resolution of the political tensions in Belarus.
“We must pray,” he said. “We must all pray. That is the most important thing.”
The photos above, at the top, are of Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Minsk, capital of Belarus (left), and of the long-time President of Belarus — often referred to in the press as “Europe’s last dictator” — Alexander Lukashenko (right).
Circumstances have now led to a direct confrontation between the two.
Lukashenko’s recent re-election as president, with a reported 80% of the vote on August 9, has been denounced for five weeks now by tens of thousands of demonstrators, who contend the vote was certainly “rigged.”
The demonstrators have called on Lukashenko to admit the vote was unfair and to agree to hold a new election.
Lukashenko has denied any election rigging, claiming instead that the demonstrators are agitators supported by “foreign powers” interested in “de-stabilizing” Belarus.
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz was the first major Church leader in Belarus to speak out concerning the protests, calling on all sides to engage in peaceful dialogue to resolve the tensions.
And now he has lost his passport to re-enter the country, and it is not clear when he will be able to return.
Today Kondrusiewicz was in nearby Poland. He has been there for two weeks, since he was prevented by Belarus authorities from returning to Minsk.
Lukashenko was also not in Belarus today.
He was in Russia, to meet with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, in the Black Sea coastal resort city of Sochi. (photo below).
(Here below are additional reports which aim to put the Belarus situation into greater context.)
Pope sends Gallagher to Minsk
Pope Francis is following the situation with close attention. He sent his top diplomat, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, to visit Belarus over this past weekend. Here is a brief Vatican News report on that visit:
Pope’s closeness to Belarus: Archbishop Gallagher in Minsk
Archbishop Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, is visiting Belarus’s capital, Minsk, to demonstrate Pope Francis’s closeness.
By Vatican News (Friday, September 11)
Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, according to a statement from the Holy See Press Office released on Friday evening [September 11, 2020], has arrived in Minsk “to show the attention and closeness of the Holy Father to the Catholic Church and the whole country”.
Belarus has seen weeks of tension as opposition parties contest and question President Lukashenko’s victory in recent elections.
Archbishop Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, is due to meet with civil authorities and those responsible for the Catholic Church.
The Pope’s wishes for Belarus
Pope Francis turned his thoughts to Belarus when addressing the faithful gathered for his Sunday Angelus on 16 August. The Pope dwelt, in particular, on the political and social realities the country is currently facing, entrusting its people to the Virgin Mary.
Pope Francis prays for Lebanon, Belarus at Sunday Angelus
“My thoughts also go to the dear [country of] Belarus,” the Pope said. “I am following attentively the post-electoral situation in that country.”
Pope Francis called for “dialogue, the rejection of violence, respect for justice and rights” in Belarus as mass protests continued to take place.
The following 18 August, as the situation in the country became increasingly complicated, the Executive Committee of Justice and Peace Europe invited all Christians to unite in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer for the Belarusian people, so that truth, justice and peace may prevail.
Meanwhile, demonstrations continue and on Sunday thousands of people are expected to take to the streets of Minsk again. This march, the opposition leaders say, will be dedicated to Maria Kolesnikova, the protest leader who was recently arrested.
On Monday, President Lukashenko is planning to travel to Sochi, Russia, to meet with Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz banned from returning to Belarus
It is unlikely that Archbishop Gallagher will be able to meet the Archbishop of Minsk, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz. The Archbishop of Minsk travelled to Poland for celebrations in honour of Our Lady of Częstochowa at the end of August. He has been unable to return to Belarus because of a prohibition issued by the Belarusian authorities against the prelate.
In a statement, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz wrote that under the conditions of the current socio-political crisis in our homeland, “I continue to call for dialogue and reconciliation.” He added that his desire is that “the unjustified and illegal decision of the border service” not “aggravate the tension in our homeland.”
Regretting the impossibility of fulfilling his pastoral duties due to the ban, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz then addressed the faithful of his archdiocese, asking them to pray for his rapid return to Belarus and for the peaceful resolution of the serious socio-political crisis in the country.
[End, Vatican News report]
Prof. Anthony Esolen
Special note: I would like to invite all readers to consider joining on a special Zoom “Writer’s Chat” on Friday, September 25, at 1 p.m. EST, with Prof. Anthony Esolen (photo right), a well-known Dante scholar and a brilliant and courageous Catholic essayist. He will speak on the crisis facing both the Church and the country today and take questions. Click here to register for this Zoom chat.
By the way, click here if you would like to support Inside the Vatican magazine and this Letter.—RM
Lukashenko meets with Putin
During his meeting today (September 14, 2020) with Lukashenko (photo above), Putin granted a $1.5bn (£1.2bn) loan to Belarus. The meeting in Sochi was their first since anti-Lukashenko protests escalated in Belarus last month.
As the BBC reported, Mr. Putin said “we want Belarusians themselves… to sort out this situation calmly and through dialogue.” (link)
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said she regretted Mr. Putin’s “dialogue with a dictator,” BBC reported.
Russia and Belarus “are traditionally very close,” BBC said, “though Mr. Lukashenko has resisted Russian pressure to deepen their union.”
For Russia, from a geo-strategic perspective, Belarus is important. Most citizens in the country of 10 million speak Russian and have relatives in Russia, and the country is viewed as a critical “buffer zone” between Russia and NATO member Poland.
The BBC noted that the meeting between Putin and Lukashenko came as a joint military exercise was starting near the western Belarusian city of Brest.
“Alexander Lukashenko wants this meeting to demonstrate to protesters back home that Russia has his back: a fresh reminder that Vladimir Putin’s watching what’s happening in Belarus, and could send in his security forces,” BBC wrote. “In return, he’s been busy signaling to Moscow that he is the man to keep Belarus in its orbit, painting the protesters as anti-Russian and backed by the West. Some have speculated that Mr. Putin will push for deeper economic and political ties with Minsk as the price of his support. Only that risks increasing tensions, not stabilizing things like Moscow wants — and there’s no guarantee that a weakened Mr. Lukashenko could even deliver on any promises. So there is a growing sense here that Moscow will back him in public — for now — while beginning talks behind the scenes on a transition plan.”
One odd fact seems worth noting in passing: earlier this year, Lukashenko declined a nearly $1 billion loan offered to Belarus by the World Bank. Why? Evidently, because the World Bank asked as a condition of the loan that Belarus impose a strict “lockdown” throughout the country to limit the spread of the Coronavirus. (link)
On June 19, Lukashenko reportedly said: “The World Bank is ready to fund us ten times more than it offered initially as a token of commendation for our efficient fight against this virus. The World Bank has even asked the Healthcare Ministry to share the experience. Meanwhile, the IMF continues to demand from us quarantine measures, isolation, a curfew. This is nonsense. We will not dance to anyone’s tune.”
According to reports, Belarus faced the pandemic during these past few months with some of the world’s least restrictive rules on movement and social distancing, without experiencing much higher than normal death tolls.
For more background, here is an Associated Press background report on the present crisis in Belarus. (link)
Protests in Belarus
By Yuras Karmanau (Associated Press, August 23, 2020)
MINSK, Belarus (AP) — A former Soviet republic on the fault line between Russia and Europe is boiling with revolt this summer. Sounds familiar — but Belarus 2020 isn’t Ukraine 2014, and that’s why it’s hard to predict what will happen next.
Here is a look at what’s different this time, and why it matters:
The uprising in Belarus erupted last week in a democratic vacuum, in a country where challengers to President Alexander Lukashenko are jailed or exiled and where there is no experienced parliamentary opposition.
So those at the forefront of Minsk protest marches have been ordinary Belarusians, instead of established political leaders like those who helped galvanize crowds and funding for Ukraine’s 2014 protest movement, centered around the Maidan independence square in Kyiv.
In Belarus, “the absence of bright leaders undoubtedly weakens the protests … Leaders bring awareness,” independent political analyst Valery Karbalevich said.
So Belarusian protesters formed a new Advisory Council this week to try to “offer the street a clear plan and agenda,” he said.
However, opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova argues that the mass protests this month in Minsk, which came together in decentralized clusters via messaging app Telegram, show that Belarusians no longer need a vertical hierarchy telling them what to do.
And a leaderless protest has one key advantage, she said: “It cannot be beheaded.”
ORDERLY, AND OK WITH RUSSIA
When unprecedented crowds of 200,000 people marched through the tidy, broad avenues of Minsk on Sunday, they came to a halt at red traffic lights, waiting obediently until they turned green.
In Ukraine, by contrast, “protesters burned tires and threw Molotov cocktails,” said Syarzhuk Chyslau, leader of the Belarusian White Legion organization.
That’s in part because the Minsk marches lack the kind of far-right and neo-Nazi militant groups that joined Ukraine’s uprising and fanned the violence.
It’s also because Belarusians aren’t driven by the deep-seated anger at Russian influence that fueled Ukraine’s uprisings in 2004 and 2014, or Georgia’s ground-breaking Rose Revolution in 2003.
While Ukraine has been geopolitically split between pro-West and pro-Russian camps since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Belarusians are broadly Moscow-friendly.
Not a single European Union flag has appeared at the Minsk rallies, and the protesters aren’t pursuing NATO membership at the Kremlin’s expense; they just want to freely choose their own leader after an election they believe was stolen from them.
Pavel Latushko, a former Lukashenko loyalist now on the protesters’ Advisory Council, hopes this could allow Belarusians to count on help from both Brussels and Moscow to settle the current tensions.
“If the EU and Russia together acted as a mediator in resolving the Belarusian crisis, this would be an ideal option,” Latushko told The Associated Press.
While Ukraine’s protest movement built a huge tent camp in the center of Kyiv, complete with food delivery and security forces, the only perks for protesters in Belarus so far are bottles of water.
“There are no oligarchs in Belarus who would give money for hot meals, medical treatment and tents. Even to pay police fines, Belarusian protesters collect money themselves,” analyst Alexander Klaskouski said.
Unlike Ukraine’s largely privatized economy, Belarus’ economy remains 80% state-run, and little has evolved since the Soviet era. That makes it even more remarkable that workers at state-run factories have joined this week’s protests and strikes.
“The structure of the economy allowed Ukrainians not to be afraid of the state, which in Belarus could throw any person out on the street with nothing at all,” said Klaskouski.
The EU and U.S. also had economic interests in Ukraine before its 2014 uprising, but have only a marginal role in the largely closed-off Belarusian economy.
Given that, the Kremlin can’t easily portray Belarus’ protests as a Western-backed effort to sow chaos in its backyard the way it could in Ukraine. Russia used that argument to justify its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and backing for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine in a war that still simmers, six years on.
But Russia’s role in Belarus is pivotal, as the country’s top trade partner and main military ally.
So far, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear to Germany and France that they should steer clear of any interference, but hasn’t revealed how he wants to deal with the protesters or with Lukashenko, the only leader in the former Soviet space who’s been in power longer than Putin himself.
Ukraine has been a cacophonous democracy for much of the 29 years since winning independence from the USSR, and Belarus is dubbed Europe’s last dictatorship — but they share some similarities.
“Lukashenko made the same mistake as (former Ukrainian President Viktor) Yanukovych — he began to brutally beat peaceful protesters, which sparked a tsunami of popular protest, insulted dignity and triggered a revolution,” said analyst Vladimir Fesenko, director of the Penta Center in Kyiv.
Belarusian economist Dmitry Rusakevich, 46, participated in the Kyiv protests on the Maidan, and now goes out to Minsk’s Independence Square every evening.
“Maidan woke up Belarusians and showed that we need to fight for freedom,” he said. “It took the calm Belarusians a long time to muster the courage to say no to the dictator.”
(Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.)
[End, AP report]
Below is an August 25 message from our good friend Peter Anderson, a Catholic layman and a lawyer by profession, who resides in Seattle, Washington, USA. He is one of the most thoughtful and balanced observers of the religious situation in Eastern Europe. The bold-faced passages below are my own emphasis for the sake of clarity.—RM
By Peter Anderson
Today, August 25, the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate met in Moscow and made some surprising decisions. The minutes of the meeting can be read here (link). The biggest surprise is Journal Entry 46. This entry contains the following resolution by the Synod (Google translation):
1. Express pastoral concern about the social conflict in the Republic of Belarus, which entailed human casualties and human suffering.
2. To approve the “Appeal of the Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Church to the people of the Republic of Belarus to end the popular confrontation.”
3. To welcome and support the efforts of the Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus, Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslavl Pavel, the episcopate and clerics of the Belarusian Exarchate, aimed at restoring peace and public tranquility.
4. To consider it important that the authorities of the Republic of Belarus thoroughly investigate all cases of violence against both citizens and law enforcement officers, and punish those responsible for violating the law.
5. To note the special importance of preserving and strengthening the ecclesiastical unity of the peoples of historic Rus in the context of aggravated social and political conflicts.
6. To take into account the petition of the Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus, Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslavl Pavel, to dismiss the Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus, expressing gratitude to him for the work incurred.
7. To appoint His Eminence Pavel Metropolitan of Yekaterinodar and Kuban, head of the Kuban Metropolitanate.
8. Appoint His Grace Bishop Veniamin of Borisov and Maryingor as Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus, Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslavl, retaining for him the temporary administration of the Borisov diocese.
As can be seen, the Holy Synod has removed Metropolitan Pavel (supposedly at his request), a Russian citizen, as Exarch of the Belarussian Orthodox Church and replaced him with Bishop Veniamin of Borisov (Barysaw), who becomes the first Belarussian to hold the position of Exarch. The official biography of Bishop Veniamin can be read here (link). Bishop Veniamin, age 51, is a native of the Brest region of Belarus. He has a monastic background. In 2010 he became a vicar bishop for the Minsk diocese. In 2014 a new diocese was created for the Borisov area, and Veniamin became its bishop. The city of Borisov has a population of approximately 145,000 and is located 74 kilometers northeast of Minsk. It is reported that Bishop Veniamin first learned about his appointment from journalists today. As far as I can determine, Bishop Veniamin has not yet made any public statements concerning his appointment.
What does his appointment mean? Paragraph 5 of the resolution refers to “strengthening the ecclesiastical unity of the peoples of historic Rus.” It is likely that the Holy Synod would appoint someone who would further this goal. It is possible that the Holy Synod harbored some doubts in this regard with respect to Metropolitan Pavel. On the other hand, appointing a native Belarusian will most likely please most Belarusians and show that one of their own is heading their Church in Belarus.
Belsat, a website supporting the protests in Belarus, has already posted an assessment of Bishop Veniamin. (link) It quotes a theologian who stated: “The man is strict and principled. He is convinced that autocephaly is a sin. Declared allegiance to the Moscow Patriarchate, but not for political reasons, but religious. Does not sympathize with ecumenism, liberalism of any kind. A firm hand for him is also part of the worldview. He is a man who has a monastic background, so subordination and hierarchy are important for him.”
There are also reports that Bishop Veniamin is very religious and has a simple lifestyle. Maybe the hope of the Holy Synod is that Bishop Veniamin will become for Belarus what Metropolitan Onufry is for Ukraine. However, it is too early to make any judgments.
The minutes also reflect other interesting developments. There have again been changes of rectors at the Moscow Theological Academy and at the important Sretensky Seminary in Moscow. Bishop Pitirim of Zvenigorod was relieved of his position of rector of the Moscow Theological Academy and replaced by Bishop Theodoret of Skopino, who has been the rector of the seminary at Ryazan. Archbishop Amvrosij of Verey, the rector of the Sretensky Seminary (and previously of the St. Petersburg and Moscow Academies), has been promoted to be Metropolitan of Tver. In his place, Archpriest Maxim Kozlov has been appointed as acting rector. The governor of the famous Holy Trinity St. Sergei Lavra has been removed from this position. The minutes contain other important changes as well. For a list of 26 of the major personnel changes, see (link).
Like many important organizations, the Moscow Patriarchate is concerned about “leaks” to the media. In Journal Entry 64, penalties are established for disclosing confidential church information to third parties, including representatives of the media, without the blessing of the Patriarch or diocesan bishop.
—Peter Anderson, Seattle USA
Another recent message from Peter Anderson. —RM
The Situation in Belarus
By Peter Anderson
As is well known, the election for the position of president of Belarus was held on August 9 and was followed by the announcement that Aleksandr Lukashenko had been reelected by a huge majority of 80%.
As probably occurred as a matter of routine for past elections, Patriarch Kirill sent a letter to Lukashenko on August 10 offering him the Patriarch’s “heartfelt congratulations on your victory.” (link with text of letter).
On the same day, Metropolitan Pavel of Minsk and All Belarus sent a very similar letter of congratulations. (link with text of letter)
As was widely reported by the world media, the election announcement was followed by large protests, police repression, and large scale detentions.
On August 12, Metropolitan Pavel held a press conference in which he made an appeal to the authorities and the public to find a peaceful way to resolve the crisis. (link with video).
The government’s Belta news agency posted an English summary of the news conference. (link).
According to the summary, the Metropolitan called on those who came to Belarus to incite hostility and hatred to go back home. He also urged parents whose children take to the streets today to talk to them and tell them that it is important to preserve peace and accord in the country.
According to this press report, Metropolitan Pavel “informed all the victims that prayers for their speedy recovery were being offered up in the Belarusian Orthodox Church and expressed his hope for a fair investigation of the crimes committed during the recent protest actions.”
Some Orthodox in Belarus have been much more outspoken. For example, the following is a video of Archbishop Artemy of Grodno (Moscow Patriarchate) at a service in his cathedral stating with respect to the Lukashenko regime: “You will not be forgiven and your work will not stand!” (link)
Catholics constitute approximately 15 percent of the population of Belarus. (link)
Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz was the first major Church leader in Belarus to speak out concerning the protests.
On August 11, he released a letter to compatriots in which he called “on all parties to the conflict to end the violence” and proposed solving the future of Belarus at a special roundtable and not at the barricades. (link)
On August 13, the Catholic bishops of Belarus issued a letter to all believers and people of good will. (link) The letter included the following statement: “We, the Catholic bishops of Belarus, condemn every act of violence committed by a brother against a brother, and therefore once again call for an end to unnecessary aggression and a dialogue for the good of man and our society as a whole.”
The letter also included a program of prayer, especially to Our Lady, Queen of Peace. On August 14, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz issued a letter to state authorities calling for the immediate “release all innocent citizens detained at peaceful rallies.” (link)
On Sunday, August 16, Pope Francis in his Angelus address made the following statement: “My thoughts also go to dear Belarus. I carefully follow the post-electoral situation in this country and appeal to dialogue, the rejection of violence and respect for justice and law. I entrust all Belarusians to the protection of Our Lady, Queen of Peace.” (link)
At the end of a Mass in Valkalata on Sunday, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz read the just-received words of the Pope to the applause of all present. (link)
During his homily, the Archbishop also stated: “We want a revival. We want a new Belarus: a Belarus that will be built on Christian values” which begins with the individual. (link)
For tomorrow evening, August 18, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz has invited Christians of various denominations as well as representatives of Judaism and Islam to a service in Minsk to pray for the “victory of truth, justice, and peace” in Belarus. (link)
Lukashenko met with workers at the Minsk Wheel Tractor plant today and received a very negative reaction from the workers. However, the Belta news agency reported that Lukashenko stated at the meeting: “Come, sit down, and let’s work on the Constitution. We will arrange a referendum, pass the Constitution, and I will hand over my authority in accordance with the Constitution. But not under pressure and not via street protests.” (link)
It is also encouraging that the police have not attacked protesters in the last few days. The following website is a very good source of the very latest developments from the perspective of the protesters. (link) (…)
—Peter Anderson, Seattle USA