Catholic Christmas is the most important holiday for believers. In Western countries, people celebrate it even brighter than the New Year. In Belarus, Catholics go through repression. Orthodoxy is revered more than Catholicism and even planted, and Lukashenka visits exclusively Orthodox churches. On Christmas eve, we recall how the illegitimate government oppressed Catholics in 2021.
On January 3, 2021, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusevich birthday, Lukashenko dismissed him due to reaching 75 years. The 75-year-old Bishop Kazimir Velikoselets, who took part in Lukashenka’s initiatives, took the place of Tadeusz Kondrusevich. A temporary truce has come between Catholics and the illegitimate government. But almost two months later, in March 2021, the illegitimate government began to persecute the Union of Poles in Belarus. Catholic believers Irena Bernatskaya, Anna Panisheva, Maria Tishkovskaya and Angelika Borys ended up in prison. Irena Bernatskaya participated in prayer for Belarus near the Orthodox Church in Lida on August 12, 2020. For this, in October 2020, she was fined 810 rubles. The women got charged under Nazism rehabilitation (Article 130 of the Criminal Code). The security forces started the case after an event at a Polish school in Brest in memory of the participants of the anti-communist underground in Poland after World War II.
In prison, believers had to go through a restriction in communication with the priest. On May 1, the Telegram channel «Hrystsiyanskaya Viziya» reported that Irena Bernatskaya from Lida applied for permission for a pastoral visit of a Catholic clergyman and got refused twice because of epidemiological situation. Olga Zolotar, a mother of many children detained for creating an extremist formation, also faced a refusal to talk to the priest. 70 Catholic priests of Belarus stood up for her. In May 2021, Irena Bernatskaya, Maria Tishkovskaya and Anna Panisheva were taken to Poland. Now they are there and cannot return to Belarus – they signed the appropriate papers at the border. Angelika Borys is in jail. Her detention got extended until January 25, 2022. Her severe gastrointestinal and liver disease has worsened. She needs a doctor’s examination and ultrasound, but, of course, no one will do them in the pre-trial detention centre.
On May 21, 2021, a Catholic believer, Witold Ashurak, died in Shklov colony No. 17 under unclear circumstances. The official cause of death is cardiac arrest. Five months before his death, on January 18, he got sentenced to five years of prison for organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order (Article 342 of the Criminal Code) and violence or threat of violence against an employee of the internal affairs bodies (Article 364 of the Criminal Code). His trial passed without his relatives, friends and human rights defenders. Before that, Witold Ashurok spent four months in prison – he was detained on September 19, 2020. In his letters, Witold Ashurak said that in the colony in Shklov, political prisoners sew yellow tags on their clothes. For a long time, they did not want to give the body to the relatives of the political prisoner for burial, and when they gave it out, it turned out that Witold Ashurak’s hands had been swollen, and his head had been wrapped up so that only his mouth was visible. The investigators said that the body got dropped in the morgue. But then, there would be no abrasions on the face. Witold Ashurak’s funeral took place on May 26. Hundreds of people came to them. And in December 2021, fearing persecution, the brother of the political prisoner Andrei Ashurak and his friend Sergei Puntus left the country. It also became known that police opened a criminal case against people who shouted «Ganba» at the trial of Witold Ashurak in January 2021.
At the end of May 2021, it became known that political prisoners held in the correctional institution «Prison No. 4» in Mogilev were denied a subscription to the newspaper of the Vitebsk Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus «Katalitski Vesnik». The newspaper had been published since 2011 by the religious mission «Charitable Catholic Society Caritas». The publication does not depend on the official Catholic Church in Belarus. Even though the newspaper index appeared in the Belpost list, political prisoners cannot receive it. The prison staff deleted the newspaper from the catalogue.
On June 20, 2021, Mogilev Catholic Vitaly Shatalov told in August 2020 security forces beat him for a tattoo with the image of Jan Paul II, canonized in 2014. Vitaly clarified that the police asked him if he was a believer, and when they heard a positive answer, they began to beat him even harder. Vitaly was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, multiple hematomas. He managed to escape from the hospital and go to Prague for treatment. But the man cannot return to his homeland – the police are looking for him there.
In July 2021, Priest Vyacheslav Barok from Rosson left Belarus. In December 2020, he served ten days for «propaganda of Nazi symbols.» In this way, the illegitimate authorities called the posting on social networks of a post with an anti-fascist poster by the famous artist Vladimir Tsesler «Stop Lukashism», where the official flag and coat of arms of Belarus turned into a swastika. Before that, Vyacheslav Barok critically commented on Lukashenka’s activities in his blog. The security forces began checking his blog, but after Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz’s resignation suspended it.
On July 4, 2021, the security forces came to the Minsk Arch-Cathedral Church and declared that they had violated the law on prayer here. It turned out that it was all about the religious hymn of Catholics and Protestants, «Magutny Bozha». Belarusian poet Natalia Arsenyeva wrote the anthem in 1943. The illegitimate authorities consider her a collaborator because she supported the national movement in Belarus, lived in the USA, worked for an emigrant newspaper and the opposition Radio Liberty. The song became one of the anthems of the Belarusian protest. People sang it at the Nemiga on August 13, 2020, at the protest rally on August 29, 2020, and it was played before the performance at the Opera House in October 2020. Orthodox Metropolitan Veniamin advised not to sing «Magutny Bozha» in churches, as a secular song divides believers. And in July 2021, Lukashenka warned: everyone who will sing «Magutny Bozha» will regret it. And two days later, the security forces descended on the church.
For the first time since the 1990s, the hymn «Magutny Bozha» was not played at the Budslav Fest, where thousands of pilgrims reach every year. In the agro-town of Budslav, Myadel district, believers worship the icon of the Mother of God of Budslav. The festival took place despite the fire, which occurred in Budslav Church in May. But at the same time, the fest program got reduced. Organizers explained it by the epidemiological situation. Budslav Fest got included in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
On July 8, 2021, a Catholic journalist from Glubokoe, an employee of the newspaper «Katalitski Vesnik» Dmitry Lupach, was detained in the sanatorium «Plissa». His apartment got searched, and his mobile phone got confiscated. Interestingly, on the morning of the arrest, Dmitry Lupach talked with Priest Vyacheslav Bark. Three days later, on July 11, Dmitry Lupach was released. But he remained in the status of a suspect in a criminal case under Article 130 of the Criminal Code (incitement of racial, national, religious or other social enmity or discord). He got also accused of posting a video in an opposition Telegram chat. The material contained statements and calls for violent actions against the security forces. In the same case, «about the video», five more people are being held in Glubokoea, their homes were also searched.
On July 12, 2021, Ruslan Tashtimirov, a Catholic believer and father of ten children, was detained in Minsk. Ruslan created the prayer group for Belarus in the Viber «Holy Pisanne for Aychyna». Several people came to the family’s apartment, opened the unlocked door and entered the room. The house was searched: they took away all the white-red-white flags, a computer, tablet, phone and a stuffed pig with a homemade parachute. Ruslan was put in a minibus and taken to the police without saying why. After the interrogation, the father of ten children (two have disabilities) got released with a non-disclosure agreement.
On August 30, 2021, it became known about the cancellation of the festival of sacred music in Mogilev «Magutny Bozha». The festival has been held every two years (in spring or summer) since 1993. Its goals are: strengthening and expanding international relations; mutual spiritual enrichment through music. More than 900 soloists and groups from different countries attended it. The program included vocalists and choral groups competitions, spiritual performances, the bell ringing festival, concert performances, conferences. We do not know the official reason for the cancellation, but one can only assume that this is due to its name after the hymn of Catholic believers.
In September 2021, the state-owned newspaper, «Minskaja Prauda», mocked the activities of the Catholic Church and printed a cartoon on its front page showing priests in distinctive attire and with swastikas. The believers applied to the Ministry of Information, but the officials refused to do anything. They said that Belarusian law does not forbid such cartoons, the author of the «work» does not work there, and the criminal prosecution is out of their competence. The Roman Catholic Church expressed indignation at the publication, calling it a fomentation of religious enmity: «This publication deeply offends the religious feelings of the faithful of the Catholic Church. In the cartoon, the artist transformed the cross into a swastika. The swastika depicted instead of a cross offends not only priests but primarily desecrates the Cross of Christ the Savior, who on it gave his life for the salvation of people.» As might be expected, no one from the editorial board has been convicted of hate speech, but the paper continues to be published.
On December 14, 2021, it became known that a rosary got seized from political prisoner Nikita Yemelyanov, which he received during a pastoral visit from Bishop Alexander Yashevsky. Nikita has been behind bars since October 2019. In March 2020, he got sentenced to 4 years in prison for three episodes: throwing light bulbs with paint into the Minsk City Court building and two attempts to set fire to pre-trial detention facility No. 1. Nikita gets punished with a penal isolation cell and a strict regime. In prison, the priest was not allowed to see him, and because of this, he began a hunger strike. On November 4, 2021, Nikita received the sacraments of confession and communion for the first time in many months. Bishop Yashevsky also left the guy a rosary that he could use to pray during his imprisonment. However, the security forces violated his right to freedom of religion or belief.
Article 31 of the Constitution of Belarus states: everyone has the right to independently determine their attitude to faith, to profess any religion alone. However, only the religion approved by the dictator can exist in Belarus. And Catholicism is not included in this list. On Christmas Eve, we are worried about the Catholics of Belarus, imprisoned and those who will pray in the church. We cannot be sure that the faithful are safe. We cannot be sure that festive events in the churches will not end with the visit of the security forces.