BELARUS: Why were Catholic priests expelled?
Fr Robert Krzywicki, one of two Catholic priests expelled from Belarus at the end of 2005, has told Forum 18 News Service that he thinks his expulsion was decided by the central Religious Affairs Committee in the capital Minsk. When Forum 18 questioned Vladimir Lameko, vice-chairman of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, he stated that he did not know of the expulsion. Fr Robert has not been given a reason for the decision. He was parish priest of the Descent of the Holy Spirit parish in Borisov. The local District Executive Committee referred Forum 18's enquiries to the Ideology Department of the town's Municipal Executive Committee, who were unavailable for comment. Asked by Forum 18 whether his expulsion was connected with political activity, Fr Robert said that he had criticised state ideology. "In my sermons I spoke about Christ and the authorities saw it as being political." Fr Jozef Petushko of Borisov's second Catholic parish told Forum 18 that Fr Robert "wasn't guilty of anything." The Catholic Church faces tight restrictions on foreign priests invited to work in Belarus.
Contacted the same day, however, Aleksandr Kalinov requested that any enquiry be sent by fax, which Forum 18 duly sent.
Prior to leaving Belarus on 27 December, Fr Robert Krzywicki told Forum 18 that, although he learnt of the decision to expel him from the deputy head of the Religious Affairs Committee for Minsk region, he believes it to have been taken by the central Religious Affairs Committee in the capital. There was no answer at the office of the Minsk regional Religious Affairs Committee when Forum 18 rang on 12 January 2006.
Until his departure, Fr Robert Krzywicki headed the Descent of the Holy Spirit Roman Catholic parish in Borisov [Barysaw], a small town approximately 60 km (37 miles) north-east of Minsk. Asked why Fr Robert had had to leave Borisov, Forum 18 was advised by a spokesman at Borisov District Executive Committee to contact the main specialist on religious organisations within the Ideology Department of Borisov Municipal Executive Committee, Aleksandr Myadeltsov, but he was unavailable for comment on 13 January.
Another Catholic priest was expelled along with Fr Robert, who Forum 18 has learnt also worked in the Minsk-Mogilev [Minsk-Mahilyow] Diocese, in a village parish near Minsk, and had served in Belarus for the past decade. Neither he nor the diocese is contesting the decision. The Minsk-Mogilev Diocese declined to comment to Forum 18 on 22 December 2005 about the expulsions, while the Apostolic Nunciature in Minsk said it had no information.
Speaking to Forum 18 on a poor line from Poland on 11 January 2006, Fr Robert Krzywicki said that he did not know if there had been any state reaction to the local petition for his return to Borisov and surmised that his parishioners were still collecting signatures. Asked whether his expulsion was connected with political activity, Fr Robert said that he had criticised state ideology. "In my sermons I spoke about Christ and the authorities saw it as being political." He also noted that there were political activists among his parishioners.
For 15 years the priest at the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, Borisov's second Catholic parish, Fr Jozef Petushko told Forum 18 on 11 January that Fr Robert "wasn't guilty of anything." Also a Polish citizen, Fr Jozef said that, as a guest in Belarus, he had not taken part in organising the petition in Fr Robert's defence, signed it or "ever said anything political." Nevertheless, he continued, local officials had since criticised him because his parishioners were among the signatories: "How could I allow it? As if I were responsible."
Fr Jozef also told Forum 18 that the replacement priest for Fr Robert, Fr Zbigniew Grygorcewicz, who is likewise from Poland, arrived in Borisov on 28 December and is now operating "with full rights – except that he has no involvement in either politics or elections."
Of the 250 or so Catholic priests in Belarus, more than half are foreign citizens. The Catholic Church faces tight restrictions on priests it invites, being subject to an annual quota and unable to transfer priests from one parish to another without their religious visa being cancelled and reissued.
According to Fr Jozef Petushko, Fr Robert was assigned to a group of village parishes at the start of his five-year spell in Belarus and was transferred with great difficulty to Borisov, where the Descent of the Holy Spirit parish is currently building a new church. "We are still building everything up," he told Forum 18, "the only Catholic church in Borisov – the church where I now serve – was closed between 1935 and 1990." Suggesting that some progress is being made, however, Fr Jozef estimated that there are now over 100 Belarusian Catholic priests. According to the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, 428 Roman Catholic parishes have been re-registered under the 2002 religion law (see F18News 17 November 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=454).
In November 2002 a Catholic layman and opposition activist from Borisov, Igor Zakrevsky, was detained for picketing in Minsk against the adoption of the 2002 religion law, which breaks Belarus' international human rights commitments. Zakrevsky has since left the country. (END)
For more background information see Forum 18's Belarus religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=478
A printer-friendly map of Belarus is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=belaru
6 January 2006
Catholic priest Fr. Robert Krzywicki, who was ordered with another priest in mid-December 2005 to leave Belarus by the end of the year, left the country on 27 December. He had served as a priest in the town of Borisov [Barysaw], north-east of the capital Minsk, for 12 years, and his supporters gathered with flowers and gifts on the steps of the parish church to see him off. No reason was given for the decision and Fr. Krzywicki told Forum 18 News Service that "I committed no crime." Baptists from across the country have told Forum 18 that pressure has also begun to mount on their congregations. In western Belarus for example, a member of a small village congregation told Forum 18 from Brest that "there are incidents all over the place. We don't know why things changed for the worse, but we don't believe the pressure has ended." Church members have appealed to the authorities in Brest and the capital Minsk against violations of their rights.
6 January 2006
The congregation of a Baptist Church in Bobruisk, in eastern Belarus, has called for an end to the "persecution" of members of the Yermalitsky family, who host the church's services in their home. The family has faced a series of fines and other harassment from state officials, much of which has been personally orchestrated by Aleksandr Markachev of the town administration. Markachev has defended his actions to Forum 18 News Service, claiming that "a private home is not designated for religious worship," and that "their services are illegal." He also alleged that the church services caused the risk of a fire and health problems, but dismissed Forum 18's suggestions that if church members believed they were at risk of fire or health problems they could choose not to attend. The congregation has also called for worship services to be allowed to take place freely, and the cancellation of fines imposed on the Yermalitsky family.
22 December 2005
Two Catholic priests from Poland who have served in Belarus for more than a decade have been ordered to leave the country by year's end 2005 as their religious visas have not been renewed. Fr Robert Krzywicki, priest of the Descent of the Holy Spirit parish in Borisov north-east of the capital Minsk, insists to Forum 18 News Service that he committed no crime. He attributes his expulsion to his work with young people, both Catholic and non-Catholic, and his active role in ecumenical and charitable events in the town. He says such expulsions make it hard for the Catholic Church to provide clergy who understand their parishioners. "It takes about five years for a foreign priest to learn the language, the culture and the situation," he told Forum 18. "When a new priest arrives from abroad he doesn't understand these."