BELARUS: Radio Chief Refuses to Explain Halt to Catholic Mass Broadcast.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 16 January 2002

The head of Belarus' first national radio channel, Vladimir Martynov, has refused to explain to Keston News Service why the regular Sunday morning live transmission of the Catholic Mass was abruptly halted ahead of the scheduled 6 January transmission. The Belarusian-language Mass led by Father Vladislav Zavalnyuk from the church of Sts Simon and Helen in the capital Minsk - which has been broadcast regularly for the past eight years - was not broadcast on Sunday 13 January either. "You have incorrect information," Martynov told Keston by telephone from Minsk on 14 January. "You must have been talking to Mr Zavalnyuk." Asked why transmission of the Mass had stopped, who had ordered it and whether his statement meant that transmission would soon resume, Martynov refused to answer all further questions and put the phone down. An Orthodox priest confirmed to Keston that their two weekly radio broadcasts on the same channel are continuing.

Yelena Babak, head of cultural broadcasting at the first national radio, also declined to say who had ordered the cancellation of the Catholic Mass broadcast. Speaking to Keston by telephone from Minsk on 16 January, she 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". "We didn't close it down." She claimed they were working on a new weekly 15-minute programme where a Catholic priest would give a sermon. Asked which Catholic representatives they had discussed the new plans with she admitted they had not discussed them with the Catholic Church. "We're not discussing it with anyone." She admitted that her station had received "signals" from listeners about the cancellation of the Mass broadcast but said she had not counted how many.

Father Zavalnyuk told Keston from Minsk on 15 January that he was "very optimistic" that the "misunderstanding" would be resolved and that the broadcasting of the Mass would resume on a regular basis. "We hope for a sensible solution." He pointed out that the broadcast had many listeners among the elderly and the sick who could not come to church. "They like to pray at home. Such broadcasts are quite normal in Western countries and should be here also."

The first Father Zavalnyuk knew about the cancellation of the programme was when a radio official informed him verbally on 26 December that as of 1 January the broadcast was being halted. "They gave just childish reasons - no substantive reasons at all," he told Keston. Asked why he believed the broadcast had been cancelled, he declared: "I don't know. I'm not competent to say - the decision was taken by the radio station. I could speculate, but we have received no concrete reasons."

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. As radio officials have refused to discuss the cancellation openly, Keston has been unable to confirm or deny this claim.

Father Zavalnyuk told Keston he did not know whether the decision to halt the broadcast was linked to the anti-Catholic article published at the end of last year in the newspaper of the local administration in Vitebsk, Belarus' fourth-largest town (see separate KNS article).

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." He said the Orthodox broadcasts were currently organised by laypeople, but that if the Orthodox Church wanted to broadcast its services regularly he believed they would receive permission.

Archimandrite Ioann of the Belarusian Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate confirmed that his church had no regular broadcasts on television except the Christmas and Easter liturgies. He told Keston from Minsk on 15 January that the first national radio channel broadcast a half-hour programme on Saturday evenings and a fifteen-minute sermon which he gave on Sunday mornings. He said such broadcasts had continued on the two Sundays this year and had no reason to believe they too would be halted. He told Keston he was unaware that transmission of the Catholic Mass had stopped.

Archimandrite Ioann said his Church had never asked for regular broadcasts of services. "Our liturgy is too long and would need at least two hours on a Sunday morning." (END)