By Bogdan Turek and Jan de Weydenthal
Warsaw, 6 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka says he intends to establish "Christian values" in his country.
Visiting two days ago (March 4) the western Belarusian town of Hrodno for meetings with religious leaders from the Catholic, Russian Orthodox and Uniate Churches, Lukashenka was quoted by press reporters (Reuters) as saying that he was "not a believer, but we must establish Christian values." He was also reported to have said that "the state will not make anyone pray. It is up for each person to decide which faith to profess."
There has been no official statement on the meetings, but a reporter from the Poland-based Catholic Information Agency quoted Cardinal Kazimir Sventak, head of the Belarus Catholic Church, as saying that "the meeting took place in a friendly atmosphere. It sparked the hope for the prolongation of the dialogue with the state that is beneficial for the Church in Belarus." The cardinal met Lukashenka in Hrodno's Catholic seminary.
After having toured the seminary Lukashenka was said to have told the cardinal that Belarusian citizens should study there and later work in the country following graduation. Sventak was also reported to have discussed with Lukashenka a possibility of the reopening of a Catholic seminary in the southern city of Pinsk.
About 20 percent of Belarus's 10 million population are Catholic. Most of them live in the western part of the country bordering on Poland. Among the clergy there are also many ethnic Poles, a situation seen by some Belarusian officials as "undesirable."
Maria Biryukova, a deputy head of the Hrodno regional administration, was reported by both western and Russian media (Reuters and Interfax) to have noted that "Polish Catholics are a political force." She went on to say that "during the (1966) referendum they spoke against the president."
Biryukova also alleged that Catholic clerics have been arriving in Belarus illegally and have been preaching in Polish to the local faithful. The Church gives services in Belarusian, Polish and Latin. The government wants them to be conducted in Russian.
She called it a "grave problem," adding that some 40 Catholic priests and more than 30 nuns have been expelled from the Hrodno region during the last three years.
But Cardinal Sventak denied that there was an official government campaign against the Polish clergy. "President Lukashenka did not say a single time that it is impossible to bring in Polish priests," the cardinal was reported to have said, "the word 'Poland' has not been mentioned a single time." He added that "President Lukashenka only said that if there is a need, priests should be brought in from various countries."
Lukashenka has said in the past that he treats all religions "equally." But there is reason to believe that the government would like to give more support to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Biryukova was reported to have noted in talking to journalists in Hrodno that the Orthodox Church "is characterized by loyalty to the state and by a more stable pace of spiritual life in parishes."