Wave of arrests continue for Belarus Catholics

(OSV News) ─ Priests and lay Catholics from Belarus said they still hope their church's situation will improve, despite the continued arrests of clergy and new religious restrictions that are imminent.

"Priests are being targeted on various pretexts, and many Catholics feel pressured and harassed," explained Father Dzmitry Prystupa, from Baranavichy in Belarus' southern Diocese of Pinsk.

"It's painful that there's no free speech in our church -- and that the good news, so strongly linked with truth and justice, has to be announced selectively, subject to official surveillance and verification. But I still think we should trust our church's leaders to do their best," he said.

The priest spoke amid the country's plans to enforce a new Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations law, signed Dec. 30 by President Alexander Lukashenko and published Jan. 5, which will restrict educational and missionary activity by churches and require all parishes to reapply for legal status.

In an OSV News interview, Father Prystupa said fellow clergy were still coming to terms with the law's implications, adding that he regretted that Lukashenko's regime only thought "in a narrative of political opposition."

Meanwhile, a prominent lay Catholic said the Belarus bishops' conference had analyzed the law when it was being drafted last June, but had not yet offered advice on how church communities should prepare for it.

"In coming months, meetings should be held to guide parish rectors through the new procedures," Artiom Tkaczuk, a social worker now living in neighboring Poland, told OSV News.

"But the whole legal system in Belarus is unpredictable -- so while church leaders will be studying the new law's detailed provisions, they'll also be trying to anticipate what the regime hopes to achieve with it," Tkaczuk said.

Besides obliging communities to re-register their founding charters or face liquidation, the law will prohibit religious activities deemed to harm "health and morals," infringe Belarus' "sovereignty, constitutional system and civil harmony," or "humiliate national honor and dignity."

Parental applications will be required for children seeking catechism classes at churches, while parish office-holders must have their addresses and personal data registered.

In a June 12 statement, the bishops warned the law would "complicate the dynamics of state-confessional relations," adding that the Catholic Church would "face difficulties" observing its tightened controls over religious education, as well as its accompanying ban on minority languages and curbs on monastic communities, pilgrimages and religious literature.

The Catholic Church, making up a 10th of Belarus' population of 9.4 million, has not reacted publicly to mistreatment of citizens since its leader, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, was made to retire in January 2021 after being temporarily barred from the country.

However, dozens of clergy from various denominations have also faced arrest, while in a Jan. 10 statement, the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need said Belarus now ranked second in the world after Nicaragua for the number of arrested Catholic priests, with 10 detained on extremism and treason charges in 2023, along with many lay Catholics.

On Jan. 24, a well-known Catholic journalist, Oksana Yuczkavich, was detained on unspecified charges. Another prominent lay Catholic, Piotr Rudkovsky, was arrested Jan. 26 -- an arrest linked to his cooperation with Belarus' opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Meanwhile, three priests arrested in November included Polish native Father Henryk Okolotovich, rector of St. Joseph's Parish at Volozhin, northwest of Minsk, who also remains in detention on unknown charges.

Tkaczuk said clergy from Father Okolotovich's Minsk-Mohilev Archdiocese had prayed for him at a December meeting, while Curia officials also had sought information about the 63-year-old's fate.

In the face of new arrests, Tkaczuk told OSV News that with the new law, "it's clear we must now prepare for a fresh wave of systemic pressure across our four dioceses."

"With all media under strict regime control and priests routinely intimidated by security agents, it simply isn't possible to say anything about arrests and detentions," Father Prystupa told OSV News.

"But we know the fate of martyrs has always provided a seed, so we should trust in God's will. For now, instead of fighting in vain, we should focus on proclaiming the Gospel and following Christ, the church's first duty."

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Jonathan Luxmoore writes for OSV News from Oxford, England.