Catholic clergy asked to leave Belarus

Oslo, Oct. 06, 2006 (CNA) -- Catholics in the former Soviet republic of Belarus are praying and scratching their heads at the expulsion of 12 Roman Catholic Polish religious, 7 priests and 5 nuns, from service in their country.

According to Forum 18 News Service, Fr Yan Kuchynski, the Dean of Grodno's Catholic Cathedral, said "no reason whatsoever" has been given for the refusal of Belarusian authorities to renew the visas of the 12 religious, all of whom have been serving Belarusian Catholics for almost 10 years.

The priests and nuns have been ordered to leave Belarus by 2007.

Although Belarus has no official religion, the Belarus Orthodox Church is the only recognized religion in the country. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has continued to consolidate power since his election in July of 1994 and many international bodies are keeping an eye on Lukashenko's policies which have clamped down on freedom of speech and the press, peaceful assembly, and religion.

It was only one week ago that a Catholic priest, Fr. Antoni Kochko, was tried in Minsk for saying Mass without the required state permission. Fr. Kochko was acquitted, but according to "The Universe," many fear that the recent increase in restrictions on Catholics point to the possibility that Lukashenko could be reneging on an agreement made in 2005 with the former Archbishop of Minsk Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek to ease restrictions on the nation's Catholics.

The Grodno Diocese is the smallest Catholic diocese in Belarus but has the largest number of parishes. 2005 government figures reported 170 Catholic parishes, staffed by 168 priests - 72 of whom were foreign citizens. Although 80% of the national population belongs to the Belarus Orthodox Church, in the Grodno Diocese, which borders Poland to the west, the number of Catholics an Orthodox is nearly equal.