PINSK -- The first leader of the Belarusian Catholic Church, Cardinal Kazimir Sviontek, has died aged 96 in the southwestern town of Pinsk, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports.
Sviontek was sentenced to death for his religious views after the Soviet Union annexed what is now western Belarus in 1939. He spent two years on death row, but avoided execution due to the attack on the USSR by Nazi Germany in June 1941.
In 1944, Sviontek was sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp. Upon his release in 1954, Sviontek was named a priest in a Pinsk parish.
In 1991, Pope John Paul II named him the first leader of the newly established Minsk-Mahileu Metropolitan and apostolic administrator of the Pinsk diocese.
The pope named him a cardinal in 1994, and bestowed on him the "Fidei Testis" (Witness to the Faith) award in 2004.
Sviontek served as a priest for 70 years, including those he spent in the gulag.
Yury Barok, a Catholic priest from the eastern city of Vitsebsk, told RFE/RL that Sviontek, who was an ethnic Pole, played a key role in the "Belarusization" of the Catholic Church in Belarus.
Andrzej Poczobut, a prominent Polish-Belarusian journalist, told RFE/RL that Sviontek was a legend and a symbol of the Catholic faith in Belarus.
His death, Poczobut said, marks the end of the generation of clerics who faced persecution for their faith.
Ismail Aleksandrovich, the former mufti of Belarusian Muslims, told RFE/RL that representatives of all other religions in Belarus are praying for Cardinal Sviontek and mourning his death.
He described Sviontek as "a strong believer and a brave challenger, who did a lot for all of us in Belarus."
Cardinal Sviontek will be buried on July 25.