Tuesday 15 February 2000
BELARUS AUTHORITIES ORDER POLISH CATHOLIC PRIEST TO
HALT `ILLEGAL' WORK

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

The Belarusian authorities have ordered a Roman Catholic priest who has been
working in the country for the past nine years to halt his pastoral work on the
grounds that it is `illegal'. Father ZBIGNIEW KOROLYAK, a citizen of
Poland, has been given until 15 March to cease his activity as a parish priest in
Brest. Despite reports on an exiled Belarusian radio station now based in
Poland, he does not appear to have been ordered to leave the country, although
his fate remains uncertain. Officials have told Keston that Father Korolyak
does not face deportation.

BORIS LEPESHKO, chairman of the Council for Religious and Ethnic Affairs
of the Brest regional executive committee, wrote to the head of the Catholic
Church in Belarus, Cardinal KAZIMIERZ SWIATEK, on 12 January to order
the priest to halt his activity. Lepeshko reminded the cardinal that - on the
recommendation of his office - the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic
Affairs in Minsk had not extended its permission for Father Korolyak to carry
out religious activity to cover the years 1997, 1998 and 1999. `Despite this, Fr
Korolyak continues to hold services in the church of the Exaltation of the Holy
Cross in the town of Brest, thereby crudely violating current legislation.'
Lepeshko then warned that Father Korolyak has not been granted permission to
conduct religious activity in 2000 either. `In connection with this it is proposed
that this be halted within a two-month period, by 15 March of this year. We ask
you within this period to resolve the question of naming a new parish priest to
the church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in the town of Brest and his
registration according to the procedure laid down in law.'

Lepeshko's letter came several weeks after a letter to the cardinal from
ALEKSANDR BILYK, the chairman of the State Committee for Religious and
Ethnic Affairs in Minsk, also warning him that the authorities found Father
Korolyak unacceptable. `Given the view of the Brest regional executive
committee,' Bilyk wrote in his letter of 17 December 1999, `the State
Committee has not given permission to the citizen of Poland Z. Korolyak to
conduct religious activity. The State Committee and the Brest regional
executive committee consider that for the normalisation of the situation the
priest Z. Korolyak must cease his illegal activity on the territory of the
Republic of Belarus.' Bilyk listed the names of 21 foreign Catholic priests who
had received permission to conduct religious work in Belarus in 2000, 14 in
Brest region and 7 in Gomel region. Under the country's law on freedom of
conscience and religious organisations the State Committee must give
permission before any foreign citizens can conduct any religious workin
Belarus.

Father Korolyak appears to be a popular priest in his parish. On 3 March 1999,
the chair of the parish council Ya. F. TERPILOVSKAYA had written to the
deputy chairman of the Brest regional executive committee V. N.
ZAKHARCHENKO, asking that Father Korolyak receive registration to
continue to work as the parish priest. Terpilovskaya told Zakharchenko that the
parish was writing also to Cardinal Swiatek urging him that `in no
circumstance should the priest of the church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
in the town of Brest be replaced'. The letter concluded: `We urgently beg you
[Zakharchenko] to bear in mind the 2,620 signatures of the faithful as
indisputable confirmation of civic accord and our desire to see as parish priest
of the church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross only the priest and dean,
Zbigniew Korolyak.'

In various letters both to the local authorities and to the State Committee,
Cardinal Swiatek had urged them to grant Father Korolyak registration as a
priest. He reported that the priest had carried out his pastoral duties in good
conscience and in accordance with Canon Law and that, as bishop, he had no
reason to remove him. He stressed that a case under Article 196 of the Criminal
Code brought by the local authorities in Brest against Father Korolyak of
illegally felling trees next to the church in August 1995 had been dismissed and
that the priest had complied with an order from the Brest city council to cease
giving out free meals and medicines to the poor on church property. `During a
meeting at the Brest regional executive committee Father Korolyak apologised
to the Chairman of the regional executive committee, Mr V. A.
ZALOMAYEM,' Cardinal Swiatek wrote, `for all his possible violations of the
law and his mistakes and gave assurances that he would abide fully by state
laws.'

Keston spoke to Aleksandr Bilyk at the State Committee in Minsk on 11
February, but he declined to discuss Father Korolyak's case by telephone. `We
don't give any answers or information by telephone,' he told Keston. `We work
like this with all journalists. This is a very complicated question.' He declared
he would respond to Keston by letter. Asked if he could fax his reply to Keston
to ensure his response was received in time to be included in the story he
responded: `We don't have the means to send faxes.' Urged again to give his
views by telephone to allow Keston to present both sides of the story and to
prevent the official viewpoint going unrecorded, Bilyk responded: `Are you
threatening me? I am not frightened of you.' He then put the phone down.

Keston spoke by telephone on 14 February to Boris Lepeshko in Brest, who
initially also refused to discuss anything by phone, adding: `It is impossible to
discuss this briefly by telephone.' However, he did then go on to confirm that
the State Committee had denied Father Korolyak permission to work as a
priest. `He first came here in 1991 and received permission to conduct religious
work, valid for one year. This was renewed each year until 1995,' Lepeshko
told Keston. `However, after 1995 questions arose and since then Mr Korolyak
has carried on religious activity without permission.' Asked why the State
Committee on the recommendation of the Brest authorities had declined to
prolong Father Korolyak's permission to carry out religious work Lepeshko
responded: `There were conflicts within the parish. The Union of Poles sent an
appeal in 1995 asking the authorities not to prolong his permission. There were
a lot of articles both in the local and the national press at that time about Mr
Korolyak's contradictory activity.' Asked what specific violations of
regulations had caused Father Korolyak to be denied permission, Lepeshko
responded: `He took over administrative functions in the parish normally
carried out by administrative personnel not by a priest. As a result in 1995 his
activity was considered illegal.' Lepeshko reported that both the Brest and the
Minsk authorities had appealed to Cardinal Swiatek `more than ten times over
the next five years' to transfer Father Korolyak to another parish, but without
success. He claimed the authorities had been forced to move now as the priest
and the cardinal had ignored the authorities' concerns for five years. `In 1996
we shut our eyes to his activity, and in 1997... This situation can't continue for
ever.'

Lepeshko was unrepentant over his office's moves against the priest. `We're not
doing anything illegal against Mr Korolyak,' he declared. But he stressed that
there was no talk of deporting the priest. `He doesn't have to leave the country.'

Pressed by Keston, Lepeshko admitted that the parish and Cardinal Swiatek
both wished Father Korolyak to remain parish priest, but insisted that the
choice of parish priest was as much a `state question' as an internal church
question. Asked what Father Korolyak should now do if he wished to obtain
permission to work as priest of his parish, Lepeshko responded: `It is difficult
to say. There is nothing he can do. The thing he can do is to calm down his
parish and talk to the cardinal about a transfer to a new parish.' When pressed
again on what Father Korolyak could do to remain in his parish, Lepeshko
eventually conceded that the priest could apply again to the local authorities for
permission to work as the priest of the parish. `If he applies again we will
consider his application,' Lepeshko declared grudgingly.

Keston tried to ask Lepeshko about whether or not he believed that his office's
intervention in the selection of the priest of the parish of the Exaltation of the
Holy Cross violated Belarus' international human rights commitments (the
1993 General Comment on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights includes in its definition of the practice of religious belief
`the freedom [for religious groups] to choose their religious leaders, priests and
teachers', while Article 16 of the Concluding Document of the 1989 OSCE
Vienna Conference requires states to respect the right of religious communities
to `select, appoint and replace their personnel in accordance with their
respective requirements and standards'). However, Lepeshko resolutely
declined to answer any `theoretical questions'.

Father Korolyak's difficulties reveal the extent of state approval required before
foreign religious workers can officially work in Belarus and the extent of state
interference in religious denominations' own choices of personnel to fill posts.

It remains unclear why the Belarusian authorities have singled out Father
Korolyak, although a number of Polish priests have in the past had problems
obtaining and retaining permission to work as parish priests in Belarus.
Archbishop DOMINIK HRUSOVSKY, the Vatican's nuncio in Belarus,
declined to discuss Father Korolyak's case, but told Keston in a telephone
interview from Minsk on 11 February that `there have been difficulties in
general' for foreign Catholic clergy although he could not recall any such
problems in the previous six months. He confirmed that of the approximately
250 Catholic clergy in Belarus, some two thirds were from outside the country,
mostly from neighbouring Poland. `Foreign priests must have an invitation
from the local bishop and then obtain registration with the local authorities,'
Archbishop Hrusovsky told Keston. `A lot depends on relations with the local
authorities.'

Father Korolyak's case has been taken up by the Belarusian Helsinki
Committee in Minsk, which has offered to defend him in court if need be.
(END)

All Keston News Service material is protected by copyright:
(c) Keston Institute 2000