Church urged to do more to help in Belarus

The ecumenical Christian Vision organisation has urged Church leaders to do more to protect Christian political prisoners in Belarus, after a young Catholic died in jail after being sentenced at a closed trial for taking part in protests. 

News of the Catholic prisoner’s death, four months after his trial behind closed doors, came as the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko faced international condemnation for forcibly detaining a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania in Minsk in order to arrest Roman Protasevich, a journalist.

Michael O’Leary, the boss of Ryanair, said he believed there were Belarusian KGB agents on board the flight forced to land at Minsk by a Belarusian military aircraft. “It is a case of state-sponsored hijacking,” he told NewstalkFM Ireland after Roman Protasevich, the exiled opposition journalist, was arrested on the Ryanair plane. The United Kingdom and the EU have called for the immediate release of Mr Protasevich, who has appeared on a video making a “confession” and who it is feared is being tortured.

The regime in Belarus has a reputation for ruthless suppression of any opposition, including peaceful opposition. 

Vitold Ashurak, a believer and activist of the Catholic community at Lida, died on 21 May in the penal colony in Sklou while serving a five-year term, Christian Vision said in a statement. “We call on the Christian community worldwide to join in solidarity with people of faith in Belarus who participate in peaceful democratic action, and especially with those imprisoned. We call on the leadership of the Catholic Church to make every possible diplomatic effort to secure for believing political prisoners a chance to meet with clergy and have access to the religious press and literature, and to secure as the earliest possible release of innocent people.”

Christian Vision described Ashurak, who was recognised as a political prisoner by human rights groups, as an “active Catholic believer”, who had taken part in prayer services and rosary recitals in protest against the President Lukashenko’s August 2020 re-election, which was branded rigged by Western governments. It added that other prisoners had been given “disproportionately ruthless sentences” after being denied a fair trial, and faced “degrading conditions of detention”, including “violence and torture, and barriers to accessing healthcare”. 

Leaders of Belarus’s Catholic Church, which confirmed in early May that it was denied access to prisoners and detainees, have said nothing about the death of Ashurak, despite high-profile late May appearances by the Vatican’s Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Ante Jozic, and other bishops. 

Photo: Demonstrators in Kiev call for the release of Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian journalist and opposition activist arrested in Belarus
Ukrinform/Alamy

Jonathan Luxmoore, The Tablet