By United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback and Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkēvičs
Since Alyaksandr Lukashenka falsely claimed a landslide victory in early August in a Belarusian presidential election that was neither free nor fair, peaceful protesters have taken to the streets in the largest numbers in the country’s history. Beatings and detentions of thousands by security services followed, and opposition and faith leaders, including Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, have been exiled, deported, or jailed. Despite indications that even the Kremlin was taken aback by the brutality of the Belarusian authorities’ violence against protestors, the Russian government has unwisely continued to support the regime.
People of faith who have spoken against violence or the brutal behavior of authorities following the election have not been spared. Clergy have been detained and harassed simply for voicing their opposition to the regime’s wanton use of force – a concern that resonates across faiths and society. While Orthodox Christians make up the largest community of believers in Belarus, other people of faith have suffered. During one protest, law enforcement barred the doors to Minsk’s historic Roman Catholic “Red Church” in Independence Square, blocking approximately 100 protesters and parishioners from leaving. The Russian Orthodox Church announced that the leader of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Pavel, would be replaced after he expressed justified pastoral concern for the suffering of members of his flock.
However, in perhaps the most glaring example of the authorities restricting a religious leader for supporting peace, non-violence, and dialogue, the regime barred the leader of the Catholic Church in Belarus, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, from the country on August 31 after he made a short trip to the shrine of the Black Madonna in Czestochowa, Poland. The Archbishop is a born-and-raised Belarusian citizen with a Belarusian passport. In apparent violation of the Belarusian Constitution, the Belarusian authorities have not permitted the Archbishop to return to his own country.
The Belarusian officials at the border did not provide the Archbishop with an excuse for blocking his return, but many believe he was denied entry because he spoke out about the regime’s use of violence against protesters and called for dialogue. On August 19, he prayed outside a prison where detained protesters were reportedly tortured and where the regime refused him entrance when he tried to carry out Jesus’ command to visit the imprisoned.
Belarusian authorities claim they are still “verifying” the Archbishop’s citizenship. In the meantime, they have invalidated his passport. As a result, the Archbishop cannot enter Belarus to participate in church services, provide spiritual care, or lead the Catholic Church. Adding insult to injury, a regular Sunday morning Mass broadcast has been removed from the airwaves of the largest nationwide radio channel in Belarus.
The exile of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz unfairly punishes him as well as members of the Catholic Church in Belarus. The world agrees. Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkēvičs issued a statement, joined by a number of countries, including the United States, condemning the barred entry of the Archbishop into Belarus. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other world leaders have decried the disgraceful treatment of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz and of all Roman Catholics in Belarus by the regime. U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback has also added his voice to the chorus calling for authorities to allow the Archbishop to return home.
Tragically, before the current crisis, indications from the Belarusian government were that it was interested in taking steps in the right direction in the religious freedom space. The Belarusian authorities should get back on that path. Respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom, leads to greater stability and prosperity in the long-run. We hope Alyaksandr Lukashenka understands that soon.
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz should be allowed to return to Belarus because it is the right thing to do – to respect the Archbishop’s Belarusian citizenship and to uphold the religious freedom of all of Belarus’ Roman Catholics.
We whole-heartedly join government leaders and leaders from multiple faiths in calling for Belarusian authorities to allow Archbishop Kondrusiewicz to return to Belarus. Let him come home!