Statement of the Christian Vision group of the Coordination Council on State Media Incitement to Religious Discrimination Against Catholic Clergy
September 7, 2021
In the issue of September 7, 2021, the newspaper of the Minsk Regional Executive Committee “Minskaja Praŭda” (with a print run of 13,589 copies) published a cartoon on the front page by Anton Ostrovsky. The cartoon depicts the figures of four priests, with elements of clothing and prayer gestures peculiar to the Roman Catholic confession, against the background of an icon of the Rosica martyrs who died at the hands of the Nazis. One of the figures has a swastika instead of a pectoral cross, a white-red-white national flag of Belarus on his arm, and the performance of the hymn “Mahutny Boža” in a speech bubble. The figure of another Catholic priest is turned with his head towards the above, and the fingers of his left hand bend the pectoral cross into a swastika. The explanation given in small print near the cartoon states that the Belarusian hymn “Mahutny Boža” is associated with “collaborators”, and “today’s Catholic authorities, despite requests and warnings, for some reason do not want to stop it being performed in churches”.Thus, the cartoon clearly depicts the Catholic clergy of Belarus. For performing the national hymn «Mahutny Boža», the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus are compared with the Nazis, blasphemously depicting crosses distorted into a swastika on them.
Without denying the right of journalists to freely discuss the aesthetic, religious and moral aspects of any creative works of culture and art, we must note several facts.
Firstly, the hymn “Mahutny Boža” has never been collaborationist in its content and contains no hint of violence, aggression, praise of Nazism or national superiority: the text is politically neutral, it is addressed to God with a request to bless the Belarusian people for productive daily work in the material and spiritual sense, about truth, respect and faith. It describes Belarus as “quiet and friendly”.
Secondly, the anthem was never performed and could not act as an anthem of any collaboration forces in Belarus during the Nazi occupation, since the composer Mikola Ravenski wrote the music only in 1947 in Belgium, three years after the end of the Nazi occupation of Belarus. The hymn spread widely among Christian communities abroad, and later became one of the most beloved and most performed hymns among Belarusian Christians of different denominations.
In 2020, amid the political crisis, this popular Christian hymn began to be sung also during mass peaceful protests against violence and election fraud. It caused rejection of this chant by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, the desire to prohibit its public performance and repression and threats from the authorities to those who perform this hymn. For example, Alexander Lukashenko issued a direct threat on 2 July 2021, and on 4 July 2021 police raided the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Minsk because the congregation sang the hymn “Mahutny Boža” after one of the masses.
Thirdly, the cartoon of Catholic priests with crosses in the form of a swastika has signs of deliberate actions aimed at defaming the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus, forming a negative image of Catholic priests as “Nazis”, and inciting to religious hatred against Roman Catholic clergy. An important circumstance is also the fact that the cartoon was published on the front page in the official publication of the executive authority, which indicates support for such anti-Catholic attacks on the part of the state, sows hostility against the entire Roman Catholic community, which is a religious minority in the country. Such actions can be qualified in accordance with Part 1 and Part 2 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus (“Incitement to racial, national, religious or other social enmity or hatred”).
As is stated in Principle 1 of the Recommendation R (97) 20 of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers to Member States on “Hate Speech” adopted on 30 October 1997: “The governments of the member states, public authorities and public institutions at the national, regional and local levels, as well as officials, have a special responsibility to refrain from statements, in particular to the media, which may reasonably be understood as hate speech, or as speech likely to produce the effect of legitimising, spreading or promoting racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of discrimination of hatred based in intolerance. Such statements should be prohibited and publicly disavowed whenever they occur.”
The «Christian Vision» Group calls on the state media to stop such incidents related to incitement of hatred towards the Catholic community, as well as towards all other communities in Belarus. We urge the law enforcement agencies of the Republic of Belarus to check for compliance with the legislation of the Republic of Belarus the cartoon of Catholic priests by Anton Ostrovsky published in the newspaper “Minskaja Praŭda” (front page, Issue No. 68 of September 7, 2021) and take measures to curb activities aimed at inciting religious hatred.
We express our concern and strong disagreement with the incitement of enmity by the authorities and state media against religious minorities in general and the Roman Catholic community in particular, since this undermines the interfaith peace in the country, groundlessly forms negative public opinion towards the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus, insults the honor and dignity of the Catholic clergy and hurts the religious feelings of believers, creates a hostile environment for them, in which they cannot feel safe, and their rights and freedoms are not protected properly.
We express our solidarity with the Roman Catholic community of Belarus, its clergy and believers, persecuted and subjected to pressure and repressions by the regime.
We call on the Holy See to pay attention to the facts of incitement of hostility against the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus by the state media and to adequately respond to such facts in defense of the interfaith peace, the Roman Catholic community, as well as the rights and freedoms of believers.