BELARUS: Editor Defends Anti-Catholic Article.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 16 January 2002

The editor of Vitebsky Rabochy (Vitebsk Worker), a newspaper owned by the local administration in the north-eastern town of Vitebsk which carried an unsigned article attacking the Catholic Church and calling for a halt to its activities, has strongly defended his paper's decision to publish it. "It wasn't religious intolerance. The article contained only facts," Vladimir Romanovsky told Keston News Service by telephone from Vitebsk on 16 January. The newspaper article appeared just days after the decision to cancel weekly transmission of the Mass from Minsk (see separate KNS article).

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."

Romanovsky refused to tell Keston who wrote the article, saying only that the author was a journalist. He denied that the article had been written by anyone in the local administration, the KGB or the Orthodox Church. "The journalist wrote it himself," he declared after some hesitation. "It was his idea to write it." Asked how Catholicism harmed Belarus' security and the psychological health of the population, Romanovsky referred to signatures that were currently being collected (an apparent reference to a petition to build a new Catholic church in the town which is opposed by some local Orthodox) but refused to elaborate. Asked how the local administration could promote such views, he said the paper was owned by the administration but the journalists had the right to decide themselves what to say. He resolutely refused to discuss further the content of the article and put the phone down.

A journalist at the Vitebsky Kurier, a rival, non-state paper, told Keston the same day that his paper had published a rebuttal of the Vitebsky Rabochy article on 4 January. "We believe their article was anti-Catholic and incited religious hatred. We believe all denominations must be equal." The journalist - who preferred not to be named - said this was the first such article locally attacking the Catholic Church. "The local authorities founded Vitebsky Rabochy. 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, primarily Pentecostals, 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.

According to the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, some 15 to 20 percent of the Belarusian population are either Catholics or identify themselves with the Catholic Church, making it the second largest religious group after the Russian Orthodox. Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek, Archbishop of the Minsk-Mogilev Archdiocese, heads the approximately 400 Catholic parishes. (END)