Anti-Catholicism Bubbling Up in Belarus?

Broadcast of Mass Is Halted; Newspaper Attacks Church

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MINSK, Belarus, JAN. 16, 2002 (Zenit.org).- The live transmission of a Catholic Mass here was abruptly halted Jan. 6, and the head of Belarus´ first national radio channel refused to explain why, the Keston Institute reported today.



An independent Minsk paper linked the cancellation of the broadcast to the government´s efforts to protect Russian Orthodoxy and curtail the growth of "non-traditional" religions.

Father Vladislav Zavalnyuk, who regularly led the service, told Keston he was optimistic that the "misunderstanding" would be resolved and that the broadcasting of the Mass would resume on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, the editor of Vitebsky Rabochy, a newspaper owned by the local administration in the northeastern town of Vitebsk, strongly defended his paper´s decision to carry an unsigned article attacking the Catholic Church and calling for a halt to its activities.

"It wasn´t religious intolerance; the article contained only facts," Vladimir Romanovsky told the Keston News Service.

A journalist at the Vitebsky Kurier, a rival, non-state paper, said his publication had printed a rebuttal of the Vitebsky Rabochy article on Jan. 4. "We believe their article was anti-Catholic and incited religious hatred," he said. "We believe all denominations must be equal."

In Minsk, the Byelorussian-language Mass led by Father Zavalnyuk from the Church of Sts. Simon and Helen -- which has been broadcast regularly for the past eight years -- was not broadcast last Sunday either.

Yelena Babak, head of cultural broadcasting at the first national radio, denied that the state authorities, the KGB or the Orthodox Church had put pressure on the station. She claimed there was nothing special in the decision and that it was merely part of their "renewal of the schedules."

The independent Minsk paper Nasha Svaboda linked the cancellation of the broadcast to the government´s efforts to enforce a 1995 Cabinet of Ministers decree that restricts the activities of religious workers in an attempt to protect Russian Orthodoxy and curtail the growth of "non-traditional" religions.

This republic of 10.3 million people, sandwiched between Russia and Poland, and north of Ukraine, is 80% Eastern Orthodox.

Most broadcasting stations in Belarus are state-controlled. National television has no regular religious broadcasts, but the first national radio channel broadcasts regular Orthodox readings and music on Saturday evenings. Some FM radio stations also occasionally carry Christian programming.

Asked why he believed Catholics were the only denomination with regular broadcast services, Father Zavalnyuk declared: "Our liturgy is more compact -- we need only 53 minutes. The Orthodox liturgy needs at least two hours."

The Vitebsky Rabochy article -- entitled "Curb Catholic Expansion!" and published in the paper´s last issue of the year -- claimed that Catholics represent a serious threat to "traditional" Russian Orthodoxy, thus affecting the "country´s security and psychological health of Belarusians,
particularly the young generation."

The article called on the authorities to take "concrete steps" to protect Russian Orthodoxy, arguing that Catholic institutions should be banned since, "in particular, they are liable to entice our children from Orthodoxy into Catholicism."

A journalist at the rival paper Vitebsky Kurier told Keston this was the first such article locally attacking the Catholic Church. "The local authorities founded Vitebsky Rabochy," said the journalist, who preferred not to be quoted by name. "We are surprised they allowed the publication of such an article."

Last year, a series of documentaries on state-owned television, entitled "Expansion," targeted Protestants as well as Catholics, as "destructive groups" that engage in "fanatical rituals" and "pose a threat to society."

Another series shown on state television accused Protestant churches of engaging in human sacrifices and poisoning children. Protestant groups were called "agents of the West" who should be banned from Belarus. Efforts by Catholic and Protestant groups to halt these broadcasts were rejected by the authorities and the courts, Keston said.