Two commissioners on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Gary Bauer and Nury Turkel say religious freedom is under assault in Belarus in action it has taken concerning Catholic Church officials in the country.
The two wrote an editorial piece in The Hill, explaining their views about the former Soviet-bloc country who recent presidential elections have been contested.
Some 1.6 million Catholics in the country in the country follow the Latin Rite, about 17% of the total population where most of the Christian follow the Orthodox tradition.
Mass protests have rocked Belarus for almost two months, with the largest rallies taking place on Sundays and drawing up to 200,000 people euronews reports.
The unprecedented wave of unrest was triggered by the results of the Aug. 9 presidential election that handed Alexander Lukashenko, who has run Belarus with an iron fist for 26 years, a crushing victory with 80 percent of the vote.
BLOCKING CATHOLIC ARCHBISHOP
"Late last month, Belarusian officials blocked Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz from reentering the country, in an unprecedented move that President Alexander Lukashenko ordered because the senior cleric 'mixed church and politics'," the commissioners wrote.
"The Lukashenko regime views religious organizations — which are among the few remaining autonomous institutions in Belarus — as a particular threat," Bauer and Turkel said.
Over the last few weeks, Kondrusievich has spoken out against the crackdown on peaceful protests, Belarus Digest reported.
These sentiments have been echoed by other religious leaders in Belarus (such as Jewish, Christian Orthodox and Protestant leaders). The stance of Metropolitan Paval, head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, has even cost him his post.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is an independent, bipartisan federal government commission created by the International Religious Freedom Act that monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad.
The writers noted that Lukashenko refers to himself as an 'Orthodox Communist' and makes no secret of his atheism.
"He has mostly refrained from overt actions against religious groups, relying instead on bureaucratic obstruction and administrative harassment. Now, amid the current unrest, there are worrying signs that the Lukashenko government is actively undermining the independence of religious groups."
For example, on Aug. 25, the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate relieved Metropolitan Pavel, the head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, of his duties after he visited protestors in the hospital and spoke out against regime violence.
"In recent years, the Kremlin has used the ROC to exert its influence in neighboring Ukraine. The removal of Metropolitan Pavel is a worrying sign it is now doing so in Belarus," said Bauer and Turkel.
They said that unlike in Ukraine, popular attitudes in Belarus are generally positive toward Russia, "and the avowed atheism of the Lukashenko regime only lends to the perception of BOC autonomy".
MOSCOW PATRIARCHATE'S POLICY
They said this could, however, change significantly, depending on the Moscow Patriarchate's policy toward the current unrest.
"In the immediate aftermath of the disputed election — which outside observers and internal opposition consider blatantly falsified — ROC-MP leader Patriarch Kirill congratulated Lukashenko on his victory, and spoke of the need for continued cooperation between Belarus and Russia, as well as the 'patriotic education' of younger generations," said the comissioners.
"The BOC is not typically a bulwark of the regime — despite its relatively privileged position in Belarus, where it is formally acknowledged as an essential part of the national heritage and allowed special influence in spheres like education and health care."
The commissioners note that in the past, in fact, the BOC has joined forces with Catholics and Protestants to demand a review of Belarus' 2002 Religion Law.
This mandates official registration for religious communities, restricts religious activity to state-approved locations, and punishes violations with steep fines and imprisonment.
Although the BOC hierarchy was initially reticent to intervene in the current unrest, individual clergy have participated prominently. Metropolitan Pavel's rapid removal as head of the church after criticizing the regime sends a clear signal that Lukashenko and his supporters will not tolerate any such political involvement.
The commissioner said that the Catholic Church actively supported opposition to the regime even prior to the elections.
It had spoken out against regime violence, organized protests, and protected protestors within its facilities since the beginning of the current unrest.
"Catholicism has a long history in Western Belarus, which was once part of Poland. Although the church remains popular with ethnic Poles and Lithuanians, the majority of Catholics in the country are ethnically Belarusian and represent the second largest religious confession, after Orthodox Christianity," the editorial said.
On Sept. 14, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced a resolution condemning the crackdown in Belarus and calling for sanctions. Although the resolution documents key moments in Lukashenko's crack down on civil society, it makes no reference of his assault on religious freedom.