ARCHBISHOP Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk-Mohilev is speaking out about the violation of the rights of the Catholic Church in Belarus. To rectify the situation, he has called for the signing of a concordat between the Belarus and the Catholic Church—a pact that has been in the making for many years, but has yet to be signed. “Without a concordat in place, the Church in the Republic of Belarus cannot completely fulfil its mission as it does in other countries,” the archbishop told us.
The Church is not demanding “any privileges,” he said, “but an acknowledgement of its rights, so that it is able to adequately carry out its work.”
The situation is especially problematic when it comes to state regulations affecting the activities of foreign priests in the country. Although the number of native Belarus priests has “significantly” grown—from 60 to 400 in the past 25 years—the contributions of the work of foreign priests remain “indispensable,” stressed Archbishop Kondrusiewicz. These priests, most of them coming from Poland, often have difficulties extending their residency permits.
The prelate explains: “they are often issued a visa for only three to six months. That is not conducive to doing any sort of real work as priest. As a result, the pastoral work with believers and youth formation are suffering. We are trying to develop local vocations, but that takes time. And then you have to factor in the demographic crisis, which also has a negative impact on the number of vocations.”
The archbishop reported that a growing number of foreign priests are being denied extensions when they try to renew their residence permits; a number have been deported under the pretext of minor offences such as speeding—even after having worked in Belarus for many years.
Again, the archbishop: “For some unknown reason, Belarus is afraid of foreign priests. But how many church buildings have been and are being built to serve believers in Belarus – and all thanks to the efforts of these foreign priests! These priests come to proclaim the Word of God in places where there are no local priests. How many pastoral and social programs have they launched!
“They get to know the culture of Belarus and the country becomes their home. And they bring fresh pastoral experience with them. Today’s world is not only undergoing economic globalization, but cultural and religious globalization as well; we need to get on board so that we are not left standing at the station, watching the taillights of the train disappear.”
Foreign priests who are only in Belarus for a short visit have to apply for approval from the authorities before they are allowed to say Mass. The application process that practically impossible to get through in limited period a time. “There is a paradox: a foreign priest may attend Mass as part of the congregation, but when he stands on the other side of the altar and celebrates Mass himself, he becomes a criminal,” the archbishop explained.
There also is the ongoing issue of the Church trying to reclaim properties—including many churches— that were expropriated under Soviet rule. These structures, said the archbishop, are “our cultural heritage. Tourists and pilgrims are more likely to come here to look at these churches;” they are far less interested in “the modern buildings with their often tasteless architecture.”
He cited the example of an 18th century church from his archdiocese that was expropriated during Soviet times and then restored by the Catholic Church with its own funds after the demise of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, formal ownership of the church has yet to be returned to the parish and the Church has to pay rent in order to use the parish church. “Where is the justice?” the archbishop asked, calling for restitution laws similar to those on the books in several other Eastern European countries.
When it comes to the construction of new churches, the state treats such projects as it would state-funded projects and insists the building process is completed within one year, which is impossible to achieve. This means the Church has to apply for extensions of building permits several times, at significant cost each time.
Finally, the archbishop said he “very concerned” about the state’s attempts to influence the content of catechetical material used in the Church’s Sunday school program. He said: “this is just interference in the internal matters of the Church. This cannot be reconciled with religious freedom and the freedom of conscience and the rightful liberty of religious organizations.”
Some 7 percent of the 9.5 million inhabitants of Belarus are Catholic. Last year, Aid to the Church in Need supported the Catholic Church in Belarus with more than $900,000 in aid.