Why Belarus Authorities Keep a Catholic Priest in Jail

Fr Uladzislau Lazar

On 15 November, several Belarusian organisations appealed to Amnesty International and local human rights structures to recognise priest Lazar as a prisoner of conscience.

Uladzislau Lazar has already spent four months in a KGB jail on charges of 'treason of the state' despite the fact that the public does not know any details surrounding the criminal case.

The Catholic Church in Belarus remains weak and does not openly oppose the government. The Apostolic Nuncio holds secret talks, but this tactic causes resentment among some believers and priests. Many in the Church would like to see their leadership be more assertive.

The authorities still appear to be rather timid and have yet to work out a solution. On the one hand, the activities of the Catholic Church irritate the authorities, while on the other, the Holy See can be an important ally. A priest turned political prisoner can certainly spoil future relations.

From Priest to Political Prisoner

Pavel Seviarynets from the Belarusian Christian Democrats and Zmicier Dashkievich from the Youth Front, both recently released to freedom, keep trying to spread the word about the case of Catholic priest Lazar. Until now, the Church has not officially demanded the release of the priest and holds only secret talks with the government. Mr Dashkevich said that, "it is not clear for [him] why the stance of the Catholic church is so uncertain."

The criminal case against the priest looks very strange, and information on it remains completely secret. The Belarusian authorities placed the priest in KGB jail four months ago accusing him of "betraying the state". It remains unknown at what stage the criminal proceedings are and when the court will hold a trial.

Uladzislau Lazar himself denies any wrongdoing. He said this to Claudio Gugerotti, apostolic nuncio to Belarus, whom he met in prison on 25 October. After the meeting, the nuncio called Lazar 'sober and resolute.'

The Belarusian Christian Democrats, the Young Front and the "For Freedom" movement have ​signed an appeal to show how tired they are of the Church`s tactics. The Christian Democrats want to see the Catholic Church and all other Christian churches in Belarus become more active in politics and in public in general. Also, the Belarusian Christian Democrats and the Young Front are using the chance to show to the electorate that they can protect Christians, even if the church maintains its silence.

Before this appeal, the opposition groups gathered signatures for the release of Lazar and money for his family. There are quite a few Catholics that support doing more to secure the release of the priest, more than the Catholic Church is carrying out today.

Catholic Church Tactics 

The Church only received confirmation of the priest's arrest from the authorities in September. However, Lukashenka was the first to state in July that the authorities have “detained one of the traitors who have served in the special services and who, through the representatives of the Catholic Church, is related to foreign states”.

Since then, Archbishop Tadeush Kandrusievich called on Catholics to pray for Father Lazar and Pope Francis has shown interest in the case and passed a rosary to the priest through the nuncio. The Roman Catholic Church, however, has not taken any more public actions.

During this time the Catholic Church is holding talks with the government. Unofficial sources indicate that Archbishop Kandrusievich is not part of these negotiations. Apostolic nuncio Claudio Gugerotti, who already has gotten some results in dealing with Lukashenka's regime in the past, remains in charge.

Compared to EU diplomats, the content of conversations between the Catholic Church and the authorities have never been leaked to the public. This helps to build trust between the parties, even while the Orthodox Church looks upon these developing relations quite jealously.

The Catholic Church has a long history of relations with authoritarian countries and, through its dealings with them, has learned a few lessons. The Church will not throw down the gauntlet before the regime. It has big plans to strengthen its position in Belarus: to build new churches, to open new educational institutes, to conduct great pilgrimages. Therefore, bishops remain reluctant to spoil their hard won relations with the regime.

The Church did not directly confront the authorities of Poland during the Soviet era and is not challenging the government in Cuba. It should be noted that both of those countries are a majority Catholic, while Belarus is not. In 2010 the church leadership publicly sought from the authorities the return of a monastery in the centre of Minsk and was dealt a blow. Instead of the monastery, the place was given to a hotel. It will open next year. 

The Church knows that it cannot win the battle with the authorities, but believes in its diplomacy. Several priests told the author that they remain convinced that the nuncio will find a mutual understanding with the regime, and Lazar will not be on the receiving end of a jail sentence.

At the same time, many priests in Belarus remain concerned about the silence of the upper echelons of the clergy, as they themselves could find themselves in the place that Lazar is in right now.

What Irritates the Authorities?

It seems that the criminal case against the priest Lazar has fallen apart. The authorities of Belarus are not giving any information about the status of the case, though the detention was reported first by Lukashenka himself. Lazar's sister and the nuncio continue to publicly convey the words of Lazar about his innocence.

Although it is impossible to prove the innocence of the priest, no evidence of his “treason” has surfaced either.

Off the record Catholic priests say that the authorities want to make Lazar an exemplary case for all other clergy. Although the Belarusian Church hierarchs remain loyal, the activities of such a large organisation has turned out to be an issue of concern for the authorities.

The Church clings to the Belarusian language, holds great pilgrimages, opens educational institutions, and among its active believers are a fare share of members of opposition organisations.

Lazar's case put not only the Church in an uncomfortable state, but also Lukashenka`s regime. A criminal term for the priest on a charge of 'treason' looks too brutal even to the Belarusian authorities themselves. It seems that the regime does not know how to resolve the situation.

An unconditional release may show the vulnerability of the authorities, and a criminal term will certainly damage relations with an important potential ally. The crossing of this Rubicon will have an important effect on the regime's relations with the Holy See.   

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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