In Belarus, the Church Finds Acceptance Elusive

The Catholic Church is finding life in Belarus more of a challenge than it expected a decade ago.

"Although we are fulfilling our vocation of service to the people of Belarus, we continue to live on the margins of legality," said Archimandrite Sergiusz Gajek, apostolic visitor for the Byzantine-rite Catholic Church in Belarus, during a visit to the headquarters of the charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

At the end of 1993, when the Holy See sent the apostolic visitor to Minsk, as a temporary measure, to lay the foundations for a normal organization of the Church there, hopes of rapid progress were high. Sociological surveys carried out a year earlier revealed that around 100,000 people were declared Byzantine-rite Catholics.

However, with the rise to power of Alexander Lukashenko and the neo-Communists, all efforts to re-establish an exarchate in this country were blocked.

The last bishop of the Belarusians was ordained in 1939 by Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky. Since then there has been no new bishop for this Church, which was united with Rome more than 400 years ago, as a part of the Metropolitan See of Kiev.

All the buildings previously confiscated by the Communists, and which had historically belonged to the Belarusian Catholics, were transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church by the state, with the exception of the cemetery chapel in Mogilev.

Today there are just six priests and at most around 5,000 active Catholic faithful, who gather in 20 parishes without any proper infrastructure. There are loose links also with around 10,000 other Belarusian Catholics.

The rest have had no opportunity to share in the life of their Church. Parish life takes place for the most part in private homes, converted into chapels with the help of ACN.

In Minsk, the capital, Mass is celebrated in the undercroft of a Latin-rite church, and in the basement of a residential building.

Around 2,000 Belarusian Catholics regularly receive their Church newspaper Carkva. Belarusian families treasure the ACN Child's Bible, now published in their own language, for apart from this there is an acute shortage of religious literature in their own mother tongue. Young people seek contact with the Church via the Internet.

Help is needed for the training of around 10 seminarians, who have no option but to study outside their country, in Ukraine or Poland. And two small religious communities in Polatsk exist on a private basis only and are dependent on ACN support.

Though it is theoretically possible to build churches, in practice applications made sometimes years ago by the parishes are frequently held up indefinitely, on a variety of pretexts.

"This year we want to begin construction of a church in honor of St. Josaphat, at the place of his martyrdom in Vitebsk," said Archimandrite Gajek.

This would be the fulfillment of a wish expressed by John Paul II who, on the 380th anniversary of the birth of this Ukrainian martyr, spoke of the need to continue his mission for unity between East and West in Belarus.

Of the more than 10 million inhabitants of Belarus, some 80% are Belarusian, while 12% are Russians, 4% Poles, 2.5% Ukrainians and 1% Jews.

In religious terms 43% belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, while 24% are Protestants and 15% are Catholics