Belarus Wants Foreign Catholic Priests Out
At the end of January, senior Belarusian officials made statements that threatened to undermine Belarus' good relations with the Vatican, severing ties that the country had worked for years to establish.
Aliaksandr Lukashenka and the Commissioner for Religions spoke out against the presence of foreign Catholic priests, most of whom are Polish citizens, in Belarusian parishes, – a tradition has that existed since the USSR's collapse.
Belarus has failed to create its own national church in the course of its history, and the authorities view the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches as foreign elements – one from the East and another from the West, – rather as a part of local religious traditions.
With the war in Ukraine raging near its border and a presidential election coming up in autumn, the Belarusian authorities are seeking to establish tight control over domestic affairs, including religion.
Catholics have a weaker position within Belarusian politics, while the Orthodox Church remains under Russia’s protection, and Lukashenka fears to confront it at a time when relations with Russia are strained.
Foreign Minister Explains Away Lukashenka’s Words
At a meeting with the Belarusian Foreign Minister on 30 January, the Apostolic Nuncio Gugerotti expressed his concerns about the “possible interpretation of recent comments about the Roman Catholic Church made by senior officials”. First, the Commissioner for Religions and Nationalities Leanid Huliaka on 22 January, and then Lukashenka on 29 January, spoke out against the service of foreign Catholic priests in Belarus. The shortage of local clergy has been the result of decades of the USSR's state atheism policy in Belarus.
Belarusian officials called for the meeting, a fact that indicates that the Foreign Ministry is trying to smooth over Lukashenka’s most recent comments. Minsk has been expending a lot of effort into fostering good ties with the Vatican for years, as it still holds authority in the West and does not demand political reforms in exchange for working relations. For Belarusian diplomacy, losing these ties would signal a major defeat, something Minister Makej is acutely aware of.
Foreign Priests Should Head Home
On 22 January the Commissioner for Religions and Nationalities Leanid Huliaka, a senior government official responsible for religious issues, criticised Roman Catholic priests at a government meeting on religious affairs. “Some priests from Poland are trying to get involved in politics here. They do not like our country, our laws, or our government. In these kinds of situations we should not allow them to continue serving in Belarus”, the official said.
The next attack on foreign clergy came shortly thereafter from none other than Lukashenka himself. The Belarusian leader, during his record-breaking press conference on 29 January, said he is “not quite satisfied with the Polish priests working in Belarus”. Lukashenka did not want to specify the reasons for his dissatisfaction, only saying “they are doing the wrong things”. He also noted that more local priests should be trained in Belarus.
Currently, Belarus has 430 Roman Catholic Parishes, where a total of 430 priests serve. 113 of them have foreign citizenship, usually Polish, but their number is declining. In 2005, for example, Belarus hosted 202 foreign Catholic priests. This is a large share when compared to the Moscow-controlled Orthodox Church, where only 15 foreign citizens served in 2013 out of a total of 1,605.
Nevertheless, according to Huliaka, the Roman Catholic Church fails to supply the necessary number of local priests to Belarusian parishes. The Hrodna seminary has 27 students and the Pinsk seminary even fewer – only 19. In 2014, these religious schools enrolled 2 and 3 students respectively. “It seems that the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church has no interest in training local priests”, Huliaka said.
Belarusian priest Piotr Rudkoŭski, speaking to Belarus Digest, said that serving God is a calling, not a mere profession, so training new staff in the Church differs from training people for, say, state institutions. "Belarusian bishops, actually would like to have as many local priests as possible. The Church organises a lot of educational events to attract possible candidates, and parishes even have a weekly prayer for new people to become priests. Yet government officials look at the whole issue from a bureaucratic point of view, not a spiritual one", Rudkoŭski says.
Roman Catholics – An Imaginary Threat?
Belarus over its history has failed to establish a single national church. The Belarusian Orthodox Church is fully subordinate to Moscow, while Roman Catholics maintain close ties with Poland and the West in general. Powerful foreign organisations with influence on the minds of their congregations are an issue of considerable concern for the Belarusian authorities. This is especially true as of late. With the ongoing Ukraine conflict and upcoming presidential elections in November, the authorities need more control over society, and churches in particular.
Although the Catholic Church has been pursuing a policy of Belarusianisation, and today most masses occur in Belarusian, Polish language still retains some influence and most priests from Belarus are educated in Poland.
As Piotr Rudkoŭski shared with Belarus Digest, relations between the Catholic Church and the state maintain a shaky equilibrium. The state allows some autonomy in exchange for political loyalty, for which the church receives criticism from opposition-minded priests.
Lukashenka of course remembers the patterns of voting of Catholics in Western Belarus, which showed the highest levels of support for the democratic opposition during previous presidential elections. However, the Catholic Church has not displayed any open hostility towards the government.
The only known case occurred in July 2014, when the priest Uladzimir Lazar was taken to prison on charges of treason against the state. However, after spending half a year under investigation, he was released due to a lack of evidence. No other similar cases or open criticism of the authorities from Catholic priests are known.
Belarus Changes its Strategy towards Vatican?
According to Rudkoŭski, the Kremlin is interested in raising tensions between the Belarusian state and the Catholic Church. It seeks to hamper the trend of Belarusianisation within the Catholic Church and its impact on Belarusian society. Still, it remains unclear what leverage Russia has on this relationship.
Relations with Russia are already too strained at the moment in both the political and economic realms. Another confrontation on a different topic will make the Belarusian side even more vulnerable. Meanwhile, less radical steps towards state control over religion seem quite acceptable, and especially with the Catholic Church, whose political leverage in Belarus is much weaker than that of Russia’s Orthodox Church.
The Belarusian authorities have tried to use the Roman Catholic Church as an intermediary to normalise Belarus-EU relations, and Lukashenka has been expressing hopes to meet the Pope in Belarus a number of times. The pressure on foreign priests can bury these hopes for good, something that the authorities are well aware of. Lukashenka, in a fit of populist passion, seems to forget to be careful, leaving diplomats to sort things out.
Talking to Europe, Mending Ties with the Vatican, Family Values – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
During his "open dialogue" with the press on 29 January, President Alexander Lukashenka continued walking the fine line between alarming Russia and progressing Belarus' relations with the West.
The Belarusian ruler made it clear that he appreciated the noticeable shift in European and US policy towards Belarus, all the while reaffirming his mistrust of the West at the same time. He swore allegiance to the nation's "sacred ties" with Russia, though he also insisted that he would never "go to war with the West to oblige someone".
Quite unexpectedly, Lukashenka gets the chance to have a direct top-level dialogue with the EU on 11 February when he will host a meeting on Ukraine with the participation of Angela Merkel and François Hollande. Given the format of the event, it is unclear whether he will get anything substantial out of it, apart from the obvious PR benefits.
Lukashenka and his religious figurehead, Lieanid Huliaka, also managed to mar Belarus' relations with the Catholic Church by making a few ill-conceived statements in public. The foreign ministry was forced to intervene immediately in order to salvage their hard-won relations with the Holy See.
Lukashenka and Europe
Latvia is considering inviting Alexander Lukashenka to represent Belarus at the next summit of the Eastern Partnership, which will take place in Riga on 21 – 22 May. Andrejs Pildegovičs, Latvia' State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, announced their intentions on 23 January, speaking to the press in Minsk after several meetings with his Belarusian counterparts.
The Latvian diplomat stressed that the final decision would rest with the Belarusian authorities. He also made it clear that Europe expected reciprocal steps from Belarus: "In today's Europe there's no such thing as political prisoners".
Lukashenka: "I don't really trust our Western partners". Read more
In its relations with Belarus, the European Union is willing to go beyond the current stage of intensive working-level interaction. Reaching this stage was quite an achievement in 2014. A few years back, meetings at the level of foreign ministers and their deputies were a rarity. Now, the foreign ministry's European department works overtime to cope with the overwhelming workload of visits and consultations.
However, further normalisation in their relations seems unlikely without Lukashenka's direct engagement in the process. On 29 January, Lukashenka expressed his pessimism and doubts about the prospects of normalising relations with the West: "I don't really trust our Western partners… No major shifts in relations between Europe and America and Belarus will happen until after the presidential election".
The Belarusian ruler also exhibited conflicted feelings about attending the Riga summit.
I'm not eager to go to this Eastern Partnership [summit]. I'm sick and tired of having these meetings the past twenty years. I know how they deal with matters there. Although I don't reject [the summit].
The Riga summit provides a convenient and comfortable setting for Lukashenka to make his European comeback – a familiar circle of his CIS counterparts joined by top EU officials. In the current geopolitical situation, the Belarusian regime needs the Eastern Partnership to counterbalance the smothering embrace of Russia. If nothing else, he could use closer ties with Europe to blackmail Russia and extract tangible economic benefits.
However, the price of his ticket to Riga has a ceiling. He fears appearing soft and manageable in the eyes of his voters and Russia by making open concessions on the sensitive topic of political prisoners.
Tough bargaining on the conditions of his attendance is bound to stretch on over the next several months. Speaking on Belarusian TV on 8 February, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei stated that Belarus' participation in the Riga summit was conditioned on an invitation "on an equal footing", "without any discrimination".
The outcome of the visa facilitation talks may also influence Minsk's decision. The government would enjoy having something tangible to show for Lukashenka's participation.
Mending relations with the Holy See
On 30 January, Vladimir Makei received Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, the Apostolic Nuncio to Belarus. The minister hastened to mend the rift that recent rash statements by senior officials caused in ties between Belarus and the Catholic Church.
The Belarusian authorities value the relationship with the Holy See, one they have been at work on for years. Alexander Lukashenka has often praised the Vatican's role in improving Belarus' relations with the West.
A week prior, Lieanid Huliaka, the Commissioner for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, speaking at an annual meeting of his Office, accused "some Catholic priests from Poland" of meddling in politics. "They don't like our country, our laws, or our leaders".
The Roman Catholic Church in Belarus has a serious shortage of locally born clergy. According to official statistics, out of 430 Catholic priests serving in Belarus, 113 are foreigners, mostly from Poland.
Bishops' Conference: the regime's accusations are "a baseless insult to the Catholic Church" Read more
On 29 January, President Alexander Lukashenka voiced the same concerns. At his meeting with the press he said, "As for the Polish clergy, I am not very happy with the service of some Polish representatives here… On occasion, they are doing things they should not be doing".
These converging statements from top officials alarmed the Catholic Church in Belarus. On 30 January, the Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an urgent statement calling these accusations "a baseless insult to the Catholic Church and the incitement of ethnic and religious hatred".
Vladimir Makei went out of his way to defuse tension created by his boss and colleague. The minister described the Holy See's position and practical activities towards Belarus as "very constructive and balanced".
He conveyed the president's appreciation for Pope Francis' efforts in combating poverty and promoting peace and stability and offered to be a bridge to open up discussion of possible issues between all concerned parties. The foreign ministry would obviously hate to see its friendly ties with the Vatican crumble following a few opportunistic statements.
Friends of Traditional Families
Belarus has made an important step in institutionalising its top-priority multilateral initiative. On 20 January, the international community saw the emergence of a Group of Friends of the Family in New York, when Belarus' Deputy Foreign Minister Valentin Rybakov made a statement on its behalf at UN headquarters.
It took a few weeks for Belarusian diplomacy to pull together 18 like-minded countries.
Hard-line regimes dominate among "friends of family" group led by Belarus Read more
As will readily be observed, Islamic nations from Asia, the Middle East and Africa dominate the group, and it does not have a single representative from the Western hemisphere or Europe (besides Belarus). It is interesting to note that a common characteristic of the group's members is their autocratic or even dictatorial domestic regimes.
Speaking at the UN, Valentin Rybakov reaffirmed that the family remained the natural and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state. The statement called for the systematic mainstreaming of "the family" across the post-2015 development agenda. It avoided making an explicit reference to what the definition of a family is, though still failed to gain broad support.
Despite the limited support enjoyed by its pet initiative, Belarus is determined to keep it alive at all costs. As it capitalised on its highly successful initiative on combating human trafficking, Minsk wants to maintain its standing in multilateral international diplomacy.