Belarusian Groundhog Day

groundhog day, День сурка

A tradition of Groundhog Day came from the US to Belarus. As in the eponimous film with Bill Murray, the same feeling arises when the Plenipotentiary for religions and nationalitie Leanid Hulyaka had criticized the Catholic Church in Belarus and a religious association of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The thing is that dor the same reasons he criticized them almost exactly a year ago, on 22 January, 2015. Then he claimed that several Polish Catholic priests are trying to do politics in Belarus, commit minor offences and that the Roman Catholic Church is not interested in organinzing Academy of theology and training its own staff.

Besides, according to himm the Jehovah’s witnesses are spreading religious literature in unauthorized places, preach outside the community’s territory, that Russian and Ukrainian Witnesses act in Belarus spreading their literature, i.e. “violate the law everywhere”.

Several other religious communities were also criticized for violating regulations on historical buildings (it is worth mentioning that Belarusian Orthodox Church is a subject of regular complaints of altering historical churches) and Orthodox priests from Ukraine who serve in Homiel region without permission. At the same time, the fact that the largest denomination in Belarus is lead by a foreign citizen, which is against the law, remains unnoticed.

Hulyaka’s statements caused harsh criticizm from Catholic believers began collecting signatures under the open letter to the authorities, stating that the official’s critics offends the believers and their feelings. Besides, the leaders of the Catholic Church in Belarus stated that since 1989 the number of Catholics in Belarus had grown six times – from 60 to 360. The ambassador of Poland to Belarus Leszek Szerepka reminded that thanks to Polish priests the Catholic Church in Belarus was revived.

But neither hierarch and diplomats nor Claudio Gugerotti’s visit to Belarusian foreign office could change athorities’ attitude, because on 29 January President Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed that he is not satisfied with service of several Polish priests. Thus, he expressed his support of Hulyaka’s actions.

On 2 February 2016 the Plenipotentiary again criticized Catholics and Jehovah’s witnesses. And again Catholic Church doesn’t want to train priests, priests (now Belarusians, not Polish ones) are involved in destructive activities (i.e. politics) and Jehovah’s witnesses are threatened to be deprived of registration without any legal basis. He also called local authorities to stop “destructive activities” of priests. And he is ready for “a fuss”.

It is worth mentioning that the Plenipotentiary doesn’t have a power to “revoke licences”. Only court can decide to liquidate a religious community. At the same time the chairman of the association of Jehoavah’s witnesses in Belarus claims that Hulyaka hadn’t met with the association representatives for two years  and that only one warning was issued to only one community of 27.

Obviously, Leanid Hulyaka doesn’t know that vocation of a priest is not a profession and learning prayers and rites is not enough. Moreover, a CAtholic priest must be ready to deprive himself of a possibility to have a family, moreover in a country where for 99 years the state is destroying allmorals, religious institutions and education.

“While evaluating the activities of the Catholic Roman Church in Belarus the office of the Plenipotentiary for religions and nationalities, acting in the worst Soviet traditions, are trying to tell the Church what to do, while their main function is to cooperate with the Church”, – such opinion was expressed by the co-chairman of the constitutive commitee of the BCD party Paval Sevyarynets.

Instead of that officials are accusing Catholic priests of destructive activities. “Priests are wise people. They have their own perspective which differs from the state propaganda. And comrade Hulyaka doesn’t like that” – journalist Kastus Shital supposes.

The episode of priest Uladzislau Lazar, who had spent six months in KGB prison in 2013 for a falsified accusation of supporting a man who was accused of spying against Belarus, is a clear example of what can be used against dissident priests.

The situation of 2015 has shown that Hulyaka expresses not only his opinion but of the head of the state as well, so the official’s threats can turn into real criminal cases.

According to the co-chairman of the constitutive committee of BCD party Vital Rymasheuski claimed that such statements are “direct threat to Polish authorities before the coming discussion of the sanctions against Belarusian regime which will take place on 15 February”. “The statement can be understood as direct blackmailing: if you (Poland and EU – ed.) don’t lift the sanctions things will get worse in Belarus”, – the politician noted.

A similar signal to Vatican is also possible, because Vatican refused to meet Lukashenko before presidential elections in the October of 2015. The official Minsk hoped to have that meeting to improve its positions in talks with Brussels and Washington.

It is also possible that by making open threats to Jehovah’s witnesses the regime tries to put pressure on the Protestant denominations in the country by showing wahat future awaits them if they won’t cooperate. Despite the fact that Belarusian authorities began contacting Protestant leaders a stick, which accompanies carrot, is still being held behind the back.

It is also worth remembering that other denominations of Belarus can be threatened, as Belarusian Orthodox Church, which also had been attacked by highest officials, including the president. But it is a completely different story…

Maksim Hacak