BELARUS: Slander and obstruction to keep foreigners out
As noted by Forum 18, “Catholics responded vigorously to accusations by the senior state religious affairs official that foreign Catholic priests working in Belarus often break the law, Forum 18 News Service notes. “They don’t like our country, our laws and authorities. In such cases we don’t prolong their stay in our country,” Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs Leonid Gulyako had declared in presenting his annual report for 2014. He accused unspecified priests of conducting services outside the regions where they had been given state permission to serve, not understanding either of the state languages (Russian and Belarusian) and drunken driving. Both Gulyako and his deputy refused to explain his accusations to Forum 18, which Catholics described as “slander”. It was only with difficulty that Polish priest Fr Roman Schulz’ permission to remain in his Mogilev parish was extended for a further six months until 20 June 2015, Catholics told Forum 18. A Protestant seminary failed to get permission for foreign religious lecturers.”
By Olga Glace
2/25/2015 Belarus (Forum 18)-Accusations by the senior state religious affairs official that foreign Catholic priests working in Belarus are guilty of drunken driving and other offences have evoked protest from Catholic leaders and a petition from local Catholics. They object that the claims were unfounded and slanderous, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Catholic bishops reproached the authorities that despite the obvious lack of clergy, they refuse permission to some foreign priests invited to come to serve in Belarus. The leader of Minsk’s Baptist seminary told Forum 18 that invitations for foreign lecturers to join the staff often fail. And two foreign Jehovah’s Witnesses were officially warned by a court that they have no right to talk to people on the streets about their faith because they are not Belarusian citizens.
The authorities have long expressed an intention to reduce the number of foreigners conducting religious activity in Belarus. Although the Russian Orthodox Church has a number of foreign clergy in Belarus, including its leader Metropolitan Pavel, the Catholic Church is the religious community most dependent on foreign religious personnel. However, Forum 18 notes that Catholic leaders have always been highly reluctant to discuss visa denials or denials of the compulsory state permission any foreigner needs to conduct religious activity in Belarus.
The Pro-rector of Minsk’s Baptist Theological Seminary, Yakov Timofeyev, pointed out that sometimes foreign professors they have invited, especially from the United States, are denied visas to Belarus. “We try not to make a problem out of it and look for other professors,” he told Forum 18 on 26 January. He said they can invite foreigners for short seminars.
In the 2000s, more than 30 foreigners – Catholics, Protestants and Jews – are known to have been barred from conducting religious activity in Belarus (see F18News 15 July 2009 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1326).
Extended with difficulty
Illustrating the Catholic Church’s difficulty inviting or maintaining foreign priests and nuns is the case of Fr Roman Schulz. A Polish priest of the Dominican Order, he had served in St. Kazimir and Yadviga church in Mogilev [Mahilyow] for seven years before the state authorities refused him permission to continue to conduct religious work in April 2014. After protests by parishioners, Fr Schulz’ permission was extended, initially for ten days to cover Easter, and then until 20 December 2014 (see Forum 18’s Belarus religious freedom survey http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1997).
It was only with difficulty that Fr Schulz’ permission was extended for a further six months until 20 June 2015, Catholics told Forum 18.
Also in 2014, a Polish priest from the Franciscan Order was not allowed to come to Ivanets, Minsk Region.