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Kazimierz Swiatek -- A Polish Cardinal For Belarusians

Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek arrives at St Peter's Square in Vatican City in 2005 to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II.
Kazimierz Swiatek, 96, a former Soviet gulag prisoner and head of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus, died in Pinsk, Belarus, on July 21.

I will never forget the goose bumps I had 10 years ago when Cardinal Swiatek brought the first large group of pilgrims from Belarus to Rome. It was impossible not to be shaken when he greeted Pope John Paul II and the pope made a speech in reply. Two Poles -- the pope and the cardinal -- spoke in the Belarusian language....

This was the conclusion of the efforts of hundreds of Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic Belarusian devotees of the 20th century, many of whom had suffered and even paid with their lives for this.

It is impossible to understand the importance of that dialogue between the pope and the cardinal without knowledge of Belarusian history and of the challenges in Belarusian-Polish relations in the 20th century.

Many people in Poland believed and some still believe that all Catholics in Lithuania, western Belarus, and western Ukraine are Poles. Catholic priests in these countries have always been natural carriers of the Polish national identity, and the Catholic Church in these areas has always been Polish.

Brushes With Death

Kazimierz Swiatek was born on October 21, 1914, in the Estonian town of Valga; he was baptized in Riga. His father died in the Polish Army, fighting for Vilnius. After graduating from the seminary in Pinsk on April 8, 1939, he was ordained as a priest and sent to the town of Pruzhany in western Belarus, which was at that time part of Poland.

Following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, western Belarus was occupied by Soviet troops in September 1939. Poles in the area suffered severe repression: about 400,000 were deported from Belarus to Siberia, and many were shot.

The young Polish priest was arrested and sentenced to death. However, the Soviets did not have time to shoot him because in June 1941 the Germans occupied the city of Brest, where he was awaiting execution.

Swiatek returned to his parish, but in 1944, when the Soviets came back, he was arrested again and sentenced to 10 years in Stalin's camps.

The cardinal often spoke about the surprise of the Russian officer who gave him a certificate for release in 1954. The officer was impressed when he saw in Swiatek's files that the prisoner had spent many years in Inta -- a camp in the tundra above the Arctic Circle. Few prisoners came back from there, but Swiatek survived.

It seems to me that it was God's plan for him -- his mission was to lead the revival of the Catholic Church in Belarus and to make it Belarusian. During his 10 years in Stalin's camps he saw many people who were there for their love of the fatherland -- love of Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Poland, and also Belarus. And this he remembered all his life.

He headed the Catholic Church in Belarus from 1991 until 2006. Much depended on him in the choice of language for the church services. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church said "no" to the Belarusian language, but Swiatek said "yes."

Swiatek could remain a "good Pole" and promote Poland's interests, but could he remain a good Catholic in that case? He chose faith and followed his great predecessor: the Apostle Paul, who said that he was a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks. Swiatek became a Belarusian to Belarus.

-- Siarhej Ablameika

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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