viasna on patreon

How and why are priests being persecuted in Belarus?

2024 2024-05-30T18:07:53+0300 2024-05-30T18:07:53+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

Today, representatives of the religious community who supported the democratic movement are widely persecuted in Belarus. How is this happening in 2024?

On the air of Radio Svaboda, Natallia Vasilevich, a theologian and representative of the Christian Vision, spoke about various cases of pressure on believers in detention, bullying, and even torture.

"People who are believers see their path even inside prison not as some kind of end, not as lost years; they often see it in the context of their eternal life, the fact that they are now serving God."

Administrative persecution of priests

According to the monitoring of the Christian Vision, at least eight cases of administrative persecution of priests have been known since the beginning of 2024.

Raman Razhdzestvenski

On January 9, it became known that Raman Razhdzestvenski, who was arrested for 14 days, was the pastor of a Baptist community in the town of Veramiejki (Mahilioŭ region), part of the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists in the Republic of Belarus. He was convicted under administrative Article 19.11 (distribution of extremist materials). The pastor had previously been detained, was fined, and had his laptop confiscated in March 2022.

Ihar Kavalchuk

On February 10, after returning from a trip to Italy, priest Ihar Kavalchuk was detained. He is the former rector of the Parish of the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Rahačoŭ, Homieĺ diocese of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. Subscriptions to "extremist" resources were found in his phone, and a report was drawn up on him under Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code of the Republic of Belarus. The priest was arrested for a period of 15 days. On February 25, the priest was not released, and a new administrative process was initiated against him under Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code of the Republic of Belarus. The second period of arrest was 12 days. On March 9, he fled from persecution in Belarus.

Aliaksandr Zaretski

On February 22, Pastor Aliaksandr Zaretski was detained. Propagandists have repeatedly complained that in his church there were prayers for ending the war in Ukraine and threatened persecution. The pastor was arrested for a period of 15 days, after that for another 15 days under Article 24.23 of the Administrative Code (violation of the procedure for organizing and holding mass events). The reason for the persecution was the statements which he allegedly made during a service: "Let's pray for those who are in prisons for falsified reasons"; "look at how higher-ranking officials say one thing, but people see another on the streets"; "they show us to say that everything is fine, that everything is pleasant and satisfactory, and sometimes it's easier to agree"; "let's pray for U., come to prayers for U."

Pavel Hedroits

On March 14, Catholic priest Pavel Hedroits faced administrative prosecution. He is a rector of the Holy Cross Church in the village of Halynka and the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the village of Perstuń, Hrodna region. The priest was brought to administrative responsibility for distributing extremist materials, and his mobile phone was confiscated. He was also accused of liking to sing "beautiful Bandera songs." The priest was fined 1200 rubles (340 euros).

On March 15, Orthodox priest Mikalai Haiduk was punished with an administrative fine; he is a cleric of the church in honor of the Cathedral of All Belarusian Saints in Hrodna. The authorities discovered that he had posted information on VKontakte with the TUT.BY logo, as well as a photo of Goebbels with a swastika. The actions were recognized as the storage of extremist materials for the purpose of dissemination (Part 2 of Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code of the Republic of Belarus), as well as the dissemination of Nazi symbols (Part 1 of Article 19.10 of the Administrative Code of the Republic of Belarus). Haiduk explained that he posted Nazi symbols as part of a historical photograph in order to criticize Nazi views, which was confirmed by the context of the information he posted, but he was fined 1,600 rubles.

Andrzej Yukhnevich

On May 8, priests of the Order of Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who serve in the diocesan sanctuary of the Our Lady of Fátima in Šumilina (Viciebsk region), priests Andrzej Yukhnevich OMI and Pavel Lemekh OMI, were detained. Yukhnevich is also the head of the coordinating group of abbots and representatives of the monastic communities of Belarus. The detention occurred after the participation of both priests in a meeting of priests of the Viciebsk diocese, which took place in their church. The priests are accused of "sabotage activities to the detriment of the Belarusian state." Before the trial, the priests were held in a temporary detention facility in Viciebsk. The priests were sentenced via Skype: Yukhnevich to 15 days and Lemekh to 10 days.

On May 17, it became known about the persecution of Pastor Yury Hardzei (Grace Church, Iŭje, Hrodna region). The Iŭje District Court convicted him under Part 2 of Article 19.11 (storage for the purpose of distributing information included in the republican list of extremist materials). The priest was charged with one subscription to a so-called extremist resource on Odnoklassniki. He pleaded not guilty. The judge took into account the medical certificate, according to which the pastor cannot be sent to a pre-trial detention centre, and sentenced him to a fine of 1,200 rubles (approximately 400 euros) with confiscation of the phone.

Priests who are political prisoners

Siarhei Rezanovich

Siarhei Rezanovich is an Orthodox priest, rector of the Church of St. Archangel Michael in the agro-town of Stsiapanki (Brest region). He was detained together with his wife Liubou and his sons Pavel. Judge Maksim Filatau sentenced Rezanovich to 16 years in a medium security penal colony and a 19,200 rubles fine (5,418 euros).

Uladzislau Beladzed

On May 31, 2023, Uladzislau Beladzed, a catechism teacher at the Minsk Arch-Cathedral, was detained. During the peaceful protests of 2020, he actively participated in common Christian prayers for an end to violence and lawlessness in connection with the developing political crisis in Belarus. Inhuman and degrading treatment was used against the believer: he was forced to record a so-called "repentant" video where he looked very depressed and had to declare his homosexual orientation twice on camera, which puts him under additional threat of pressure in places of arrest or detention. On March 14, 2024, a verdict was passed in the case of Uladzislau Beladzed. Judge Alena Ananich (Minsk City Court) sentenced him to 3 years of imprisonment. The trial was held behind closed doors.

Henrykh Akalatovich

Henrykh Akalatovich is a priest from Valožyn. The man was detained in November 2023. He was 70 years old at the time of his arrest. He suffered a heart attack and recently underwent gastric surgery due to cancer. He needs to have medical supervision and constantly take medications. He is held in the KGB detention center. Earlier it was reported that the priest is charged with "treason against the state" (Article 356 of the Criminal Code).

Mikalai Khilo

On May 29, it became known that a criminal case had been initiated against Mikalai Khilo, a preacher of the Evangelism Church, who was detained on April 24. He was taken into custody and is in a new pre-trial detention center in Kaliadzičy. The reasons for the detention of the preacher are still unknown. It is also unknown under which article a criminal case has been initiated.

Persecution of religion

On February 7, there was a court hearing in the Minsk City Court on the dissolution of the local charitable foundation in honor of St. John the Russian, associated with the St. Elizabeth Monastery in Minsk. The plaintiff in the case was the Main Department of Justice of the Minsk City Executive Committee.

In the spring, the authorities refused to allow Catholic believers in Baranavičy to hold an annual Way of the Cross on Good Friday, which in 2024 was celebrated on March 29. Previously, the event took place every year and even became the hallmark of Baranavičy. The authorities did not specify the reasons for the ban.

On May 15, it became known that the priest of the Belarusian community in Vilnius, Archpriest Heorhii Roi, was added to the Russian search database. A criminal case has been initiated against him in Belarus, but it is not known under what article. Roi actively helped detainees during the peaceful protests of 2020, opened the cathedral so that protesters could escape persecution, and made pro-democratic and anti-war publications on his social media. Due to the threat of persecution, he was forced to leave Belarus.

Religious "extremist" materials

After the events of 2020, the Belarusian regime began a crackdown on the media, recognizing independent media, websites, Telegram channels, social media, as well as symbols associated with peaceful protest as "extremist materials." As a result, persons who forward information from these sources, or information containing logos of these sources, are prosecuted under Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code.

Now there are at least 13 cases on the list as of March 18, 2024, not counting believers on the list of "extremists". Among the sources are the pages of Priest Viachaslau Barka, Orthodox Archbishop Artsemii of Hrodna, Orthodox theologian Natallia Vasilevich.

At its meeting on March 15, 2023, the European Parliament adopted a resolution The Ongoing Persecution against the Belarusian People, in Particular, against Ales Bialiatski and Andrzej Poczobut.

The document draws attention to the persecution of the religious community: "The illegitimate regime of Lukashenka continues to suppress freedom of religion and belief; taking into account that, according to the Coordinating Council, several Catholic, Greek Catholic, and Orthodox priests and Protestant pastors have faced various forms of pressure, from fines to long prison terms; among them is Siarhei Rezanovich, who was sentenced to 16 years of imprisonment."

The article uses information collected by Christian Vision. On February 10, it presented materials for the report to the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus to the UN Human Rights Council for 2024, dedicated to freedom of association. The report was submitted in English, and there is a translation into Russian.

Latest news