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Belarus: Analysis From Washington -- The Cardinal And The President

Washington, 21 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's government has announced that no more foreign priests will be allowed to come to Belarus now that the Minsk authorities have allowed the Roman Catholic Church there to open a seminary.

But Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek, the archbishop of Minsk, told the Keston News Service on Wednesday that this decision, the latest example of Lukashenka's efforts to restrict religious activities, will make it extremely difficult for his church to recover anytime soon from the depredations of Soviet times during which more than 90 percent of parish churches were destroyed or confiscated.

Swiatek, 84, knows whereof he speaks. Despite being accused of murder, sentenced to death, and spending a decade in Soviet camps, the cardinal remained true to his faith and in 1991 became the first Catholic bishop in Belarus in almost half a century.

Much of the church's rebirth so far springs from the 130 Polish priests who arrived after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cardinal Swiatek said. And without additional pastoral assistance from abroad, he suggested, the church faces a difficult future, especially since the new seminary can prepare only 25 candidates for the priesthood annually.

Lukashenka's actions against what he and some others see as "foreign" faiths, mirror Russian religious legislation in its form, content and consequences.

Speaking last Friday to a panel that advises Russian President Boris Yeltsin on human rights issues, Duma member Valeriy Borshchev said that the 1997 Russian law on freedom of conscience and religious associations violates the Russian constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Moscow is a signatory.

Borshchev said that the creation of a special privileged position for what that legislation calls "traditional" religions at the expense of all others violated fundamental principles of human rights. And he warned against what he said was the increasingly widespread view that Russian Orthodox Christianity should serve as the ideology of the post-communist Russian State.

Other speakers at the gathering, including Gleb Yakunin, a Russian Orthodox priest and former prisoner of conscience, echoed Borshchev's arguments. But despite their criticism, a representative of the Moscow Patriarchate, defended the legislation.

Vsevolod Chaplin, himself an Orthodox priest, argued that the law did not in fact discriminate against any faith. And he suggested that all the problems others were pointing to arose from the misapplication of the law by arbitrary local and regional officials.

Chaplin's statement reflects the official line of both the Patriarchate and the Russian government. But it may not convince anyone, especially in the light of both the Belarusian actions and a recent statement by the senior Russian justice ministry official responsible for registering religious congregations in the Russian Federation itself.

Speaking to a representative of the Keston News Service last week, Aleksandr Kudryavtsev argued that registration is proceeding "normally" and that there is "still plenty of time" for all groups to register. He noted that the Russian Orthodox Church has managed to register almost 8,000 of its parishes.

Other churches may not be so fortunate, however. If they fail to meet the December 31 deadline, Kudryavtsev said, they "wouldn't be immediately liquidated" but would face liquidation "by legal processes." Human rights activists there think that local officials may move more precipitously, especially since Kudryavtsev has said that "we don't need unpleasant publicity connected with such cases."

These attacks on religious activity, however, do not appear likely to rein in the efforts of the faithful in both countries to continue their work. Nataliya Bronitskaya, a representative of the Union of Evangelical Churches in Russia, recently said that she and her co-religionists "have established our right to faith through suffering. Everyone knows this. Just let them try to question our rights again."

And Belarusian Cardinal Swiatek replied to Lukashenka with the confidence that comes from a longer view: "The Church in Belarus," he said, "is led by the Holy Spirit. I am only His implement."