7 July 2021
Fr Viachaslau Barok, a Roman Catholic priest, had to leave Belarus due to the renewed persecution by the security forces on 5 July 2021. The immediate reason was the launch of another administrative process under Article 24.23 of the Code of Administrative Offences; the prosecutor’s official warning; and the threat of confiscation of all computer equipment and information carriers.
On the morning of 1 July 2021, a police employee entered and continuously remained on the grounds of St Josaphat Kuntsevych parish in Rasony, a town in Viciebsk Region, while Fr Barok, the parish priest, received several phone calls from an unidentified person who presented himself as the head of the local police. The caller demanded an explanation of the photograph posted by Fr Barok on Instagram on 14 June 2021.
The photograph on the priest’s Instagram feed was found by an officer of the Viciebsk regional police department, who believed that the photo was taken by Fr Barok personally in Haradok, a town in Viciebsk Region. Allegedly, the photograph portrayed an unauthorised public event involving children of parishioners from Viciebsk. The police qualified this event as an administrative offence under Article 24.23 of the Code of Administrative Offences.
Fr Barok had not visited Haradok for several years. The photograph attributed to him was taken on the Polish side of the Polish-Belarusian border, near the Bobrowniki border crossing, during a solidarity protest on 12 June 2021. In the photo, the children of Antanina Kanavalava and Siarhei Yarashevich—both have been recognised as political prisoners by the Belarusian human rights organisations—were holding a sign with the words, SOS! My motherland is in great trouble! The children are refugees in Poland; they have to stay with their grandmother there. The photograph was widely published on various media’s websites, Telegram channels and social networks as far back as 12 June 2021. It was signed ASh / Belsat.
Thus, the following facts are obvious: Fr Barok did not take part in the alleged protest; he was not the author of the photograph; the said event took place outside Belarus and it had nothing to do with Haradok nor children living in Belarus; an event that could be qualified as an offence under the Belarusian law did not take place.
In spite of this, Fr Barok was summoned to the Rasony district police station on 1 July 2021 on suspicion of violating Article 24.23 of the Code of Administrative Offences. This investigation initiated by the Haradok police was led by the head of the Rasony district Department for the Protection of Law and Order and for Crime Prevention, major M.G. Perapechkin. He informed Fr Barok of the two Haradok prosecutor’s sanctions: to inspect the church, parish hall and the priest’s house; and to seize all the found equipment and information carriers. During the questioning, Fr Barok’s personal Samsung smartphone was seized. Due to the errors in the church buildings’ addresses in the prosecutor’s papers, the police could not proceed with the examination of the premises.
In addition to familiarising with the administrative prosecution materials, Fr Barok was informed of the prosecutor’s formal warning in relation to the extremist materials allegedly posted on the priest’s social networks. The warning was signed by the Viciebsk Region’s first deputy prosecutor, D.A. Shapavalau, on 25 June 2021 and read to Fr Barok by an assistant prosecutor, S.S. Aleshka.
The expert examination of Fr Barok’s YouTube channel and social media on suspicion of the extremist content started on 12 November 2020. On 3 December 2020, the priest was sentenced to a ten-day arrest by the Rasony district court for the alleged violation of Article 17.10 of the Code of Administrative Offences (“Propaganda and (or) public display, production and (or) distribution of Nazi symbols or paraphernalia”) which consisted of publishing on Instagram a poster, Stop Lukashism!, by a well-known artist, Vladimir Tsesler. The examination was suspended on 4 January 2021, but new examinations were opened in relation to other social media posts on 29 January 2021. Fr Barok was familiarised with the results of the examinations on 22 April 2021; no extremist content had been found in the examined materials. Thus, the formal warning from 25 June 2021 was baseless and contradicted the results of the expert examination.
The persecution of Fr Barok using far-fetched administrative processes and excessive examinations in order to identify the appeals “aimed at inciting extremism and causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus”, subjecting him to an administrative arrest and a prosecutor’s formal warnings have been politically motivated. In addition, the inspection of the premises and the planned seizure of all equipment and media carriers would have hindered the priest’s public activities, deprived him of access to his social networks and YouTube channel, prevented him from recording and sharing the content, and from keeping in touch with his social circle.
On social media, Fr Barok regularly produces sermons and reflections on the social teaching of the Catholic Church, the current events in Belarus in the light of the Gospel and Christian conscience. For several months, he actively commented on Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. His YouTube channel is followed by over 9,000 subscribers. Journalists often turn to him for comments, and he is regularly quoted in the media.
The pressure exerted on Fr Barok is a serious impediment to his preaching and pastoral activities. It is a clear interference in the activities of the Catholic Church in Belarus. This interference violates the constitutional rights to freedom of conscience and freedom of expression (Articles 31 and 35 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus). These rights are also guaranteed by international legal agreements ratified by the Republic of Belarus, in particular, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom … to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.” And also Article 19 of the same Covenant: “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
We state our strong disagreement with the arbitrary persecution of Fr Viachaslau Barok by the security forces and the prosecutor’s office. We consider the pressure exerted on the priest to be an attempt to intimidate not only him personally but also all clergy and laity in Belarus who speak out against human rights violations, lawlessness and violence taking place in the country.
We draw the attention of the Holy See to the violation of freedom of religion or belief in Belarus and the persecution of Fr Viachaslau Barok. We call on the Holy See to take all possible measures to protect the priest and prevent other cases of such intimidation.
We call on the Belarusian and Christian community worldwide to solidarity with the persecuted priest, Viachaslau Barok.