Mgr Iosif Staneuski, former auxiliary bishop of Grodno and secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Belarus, replaces Archbishop Kandrusievich, exiled by President Lukashenko for urging the authorities to engage in dialogue with anti-government protesters. State media attack the Belarusian Catholic Church.
Moscow (AsiaNews) – Mgr Iosif Staneuski is the new Metropolitan Archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev, the highest ecclesiastical authority for Belarusian Catholics. The appointment, which was announced on Tuesday, ends the apostolic administration of Mgr Kazimierz Wielikosielec.
The latter had taken office on 3 January, following the resignation of Archbishop Tadevuš Kandrusievič, who went home after four months of “exile” in Poland. He had urged the authorities to engage in dialogue with protesters in the hot months of 2020.
On 14 April, the 49-year-old bishop of Vitebsk, Mgr Aleh Butkiewicz, was appointed new president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Belarus (CBCB).
The 52-year-old Staneuski is a former auxiliary bishop of Grodno and CBCB secretary, born in Zaniavičy, a village not far from the border with Poland.
This part of the country has Belarus’s highest concentration of Catholics, mostly of Polish origin, like Kandrusievič himself.
Staneuski was one of the first students to enrol at Grodno seminary after Kandrusievich reopened it in 1990, before moving to Moscow to be a Russian Catholic archbishop, returning later to Minsk in 2007.
After his priestly ordination in 1995, Father Iosif specialised in canon law in Lublin, Poland, becoming the rector of the Grodno seminary in 2005.
For the past seven years, he worked with the other bishops on national pastoral care, becoming with Butkiewicz, heir to the first “refounders” of the Catholic Church in Belarus.
Now he has to face a delicate phase in relations with the government of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has repeatedly accused Catholics of encouraging street protests and acting as “agents” of the hated Poland. For this reason, the dictator, the self-styled “batka” or father of the nation, kept Kandrusievich out of Belarus.
On 9 September, a few days before the announcement of Staneuski’s appointment, the Apostolic Nuncio to Belarus Mgr Ante Jozič met with Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei.
In a statement about the meeting, the Foreign Ministry said that “V. Makei confirmed a traditional commitment to further developing a constructive cooperation with the Vatican,” stressing the “inviolability” of the foundations of these relations.
What is more, the minister insisted on the “inadmissibility of inciting religious intolerance and the importance of preserving ethno-confessional harmony”.
Makei was alluding to some recent incidents, and more generally to relations between (Russian) Orthodox and (Polish) Catholics.
In an interview with Catholic.by, an online Belarusian Catholic platform, Nuncio Jozič spoke about the meeting, warning that “Belarusian authorities do not admit any kind of action aimed at arousing hostility towards members of other religious communities”, thus confirming the veiled threats made by Makei and Lukashenko himself.
The meeting took place after Belarusian Catholics were involved a public controversy. A few days earlier, state-owned newspaper Minskaya Pravda published a caricature of some Catholic priests on its website.
The drawing showed priests singing a patriotic hymn to the “powerful God” (Mahutny Boža) holding the white-red-white flag of Lukashenko’s protesters, claiming that these symbols are related to collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War.
An article next to the caricature lashes out at Catholics for their complicities with the Nazis.
The cross on the priestly vestment was depicted as a swastika, while a cloud above the priests bore an icon of the martyrs of Kuropaty, a tragedy of 1943 that still arouses vehement debates today.
Although the caricature was later deleted, the controversy continues. In fact, the Belarusian Catholic bishops reacted immediately.
In a very harsh statement, they slammed “those who fuel hostility against the Roman Catholic Church in Belarusian society, against its leaders and priests, and above all against the cross of Christ the Saviour, who gave his life for the salvation of men.”
The Holy See did not publicly back the statement, and the nuncio did not speak about the incident during the meeting with Makei, generating criticism.
For the new archbishop, a very difficult mission lies ahead; in it, he will have to try to protect his flock amid the fiery fields of today’s Belarus.