Belarus expels 12 Polish priests and nuns

Conditions for religious workers in Belarus under the authoritarian leadership of Alexander Lukashenko continue to deteriorate.

Joanna Najfeld reports

There have been reports of problems for priests in Belarus, a former Soviet country, repeatedly slammed for human rights violations. The situation is especially bitter for religious workers from Poland.

Of the more than 350 Catholic priests working in Belarus, nearly half come from various countries, most of them from Poland. But now Belarusian authorities have refused to renew work visas of 12 Polish priests and nuns, who have been working in the Grodno diocese for nearly a decade. No reasons for the decision were given. The seven Catholic priests and five nuns have to leave Belarus by 2007.

The incident comes just one week after a 78-year old Polish priest, Fr. Antoni Koczko, had been arrested and interrogated in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, for saying Mass without state permission. According to Catholic World News, Belarusian authorities routinely monitor the activities of foreign religious workers. Fr. Piotr Mazurkiewicz of the Cardinal Wyszynski University in Warsaw says there is more to these incidents than just religious conflict.

'When we are talking about Belarus, we are talking about an authoritarian regime. I think that what had happened is not especially connected with religion, but this is political misuse of religion.'

Although there is no official state religion in the country, the Belarus Orthodox Church is the only religion recognized by the state. And because of its history of abuse of religious freedom, Belarus appears on the watch list of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom as a country requiring close monitoring.

Fr. Mazurkiewicz again:

'We can see that in Belarus there are Orthodox, who have mainly Russian identity, there are Roman Catholics who have mainly Polish identity and the Greek Catholics who are mainly Belarusian, and who try to develop their Belarusian identity, who use the Belarusian language in the liturgy and so on. And these problems of religious and national identity are strictly connected together so it is quite easy to see the influence of religion on culture and politics and of politics on religion as well.'

Some observers fear the recent incidents could be seen as a breach of an agreement to ease restrictions on Catholics, which was made in 2005 between the Belarusian regime and the then Archbishop of Minsk, cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek.

During the Soviet times, not even one church was allowed to operate in the region.