On the overcast evening of August 26, freelance photographer Dasha Sapranetskaya was shooting a gathering of protesters on Minsk’s Independence Square when, as she told RFE/RL, “it started to rain, then it got darker, then OMON [riot police] appeared.”
A few meters from the protest, Sapranetskaya noticed several people -- protesters as well as some passersby -- sheltering in an alcove of the Catholic Church of Saints Symon and Alena, a towering redbrick structure in the city center.
As Sapranetskaya hurried to shelter, she says she felt a press of bodies from behind. A cluster of helmeted OMON officers were effectively herding people inside the church. Sapranetskaya says “many of us were close to the entrance of the church and ran inside almost instinctively for safety.”
“Some people started to run through the inside of the church to try to escape through side doors. I don’t know whether they were arrested or not. Then as soon as I was inside the church the OMON guys pushed the doors closed behind us.”
Black-clad police then moved around to block the side exits. Dozens of people -- protesters, as well as priests and worshippers who had gathered for an evening mass -- were trapped.
Amid reports of widespread torture taking place in Belarusian police stations since protests first broke out after a disputed presidential election on August 9, Sapranetskaya says the atmosphere in the echoing church nave was tense and frightened. “Some people were making plans to spend the night in the church rather than face whatever was waiting for them on the street.”
One woman, holding the hand of her young child, cracked open the church’s entrance door to ask if she could leave. A policeman responded ominously: “Are you sure you want to be outside?” The situation grew more tense when Internet connections were cut.
After a priest attempted to speak to the riot police but was ignored, Sapranetskaya says “everyone -- protesters and worshippers -- gathered together and began to pray.” The group went down on their knees beneath an icon that many Christians turn to in times of desperation.
Then, as suddenly as the surreal situation began for Sapranetskaya, it was over. An order from police command, perhaps realizing the appalling optics of besieging a church, came through and the OMON troops disappeared into the night.
Along with Sapranetskaya were a small handful of other journalists trapped in the church. The photographer says "we had phoned colleagues outside and we knew on this day they weren’t arresting journalists -- some days [OMON does], some days they leave us alone -- so as we left the church we told people to stay close to us. We hoped our press vests might help protect the others." Sapranetskaya did not see anyone arrested from the group she left with.
Sapranetskaya estimates people were trapped inside the church for a maximum of 40 minutes.
After images of OMON blocking the entrance to the church flashed across social media, Belarusian Catholic Bishop Yury Kosobudsky said "the church is a sanctuary of God that everyone can visit freely. Blocking the entry and exit of people contradicts the constitutionally guaranteed right of citizens to freedom of conscience and religion, insults the feelings of believers, and goes beyond the laws of man and God."
The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, said the security officers carried out "inappropriate and unlawful" actions and called for an official investigation.