Belarus cardinal who spent years in and out of prison retires at 91

By Catholic News Service

MINSK, Belarus (CNS) -- Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek of Minsk-Mohilev, who retired June 14 at the age of 91, is known for cautiously steering clear of major politics in Belarus, despite his past.

Born October 21, 1914, into a Polish family in Valga, now in Estonia, he was exiled to Siberia as a young boy by the Russian czar.

Following the 1917 revolution, his family was allowed back into Belarus, where he was ordained just before the outbreak of war in 1939. Two years later he was arrested by Soviet police and condemned to death as a "reactionary cleric."

He escaped and resumed his pastoral work when Nazi Germany's army invaded in June 1941. But in 1944, when Belarus changed hands again, he was arrested again and sent back to Siberia with a 10-year labor camp sentence.

Released in 1954, he ministered as a priest in Pinsk until 1991, when as Soviet rule tottered the pope created a new Minsk-Mohilev Archdiocese. He became Archbishop Swiatek in May that year, and in 1994 he was named a cardinal.

"I'd never been a political person -- but what I'd experienced had formed my faith, as well as my concern for the church," Cardinal Swiatek told Catholic News Service. "I was the first Latin-rite cardinal not only for Belarus, but for all the east Slavic countries. This was a surprise not only for me, but for Belarus and the whole region."

The cardinal has led the Belarusian Catholic Church, which makes up 14 percent of the country's 10.3 million population, with a mixture of firmness and discretion.

In 2001 he condemned plans for a highway through Kuropaty, outside Minsk, where up to 250,000 civilians were shot and buried by communist police in the 1930s.

In 2002 he backed Catholic protests when state radio directors scrapped a weekly Mass broadcast to make way for the Russian hit parade.

But the cardinal has also steered a cautious course with the regime of President Aleksander Lukashenka, who was granted sweeping powers and unlimited terms as head of state in 1996 and 2004 referendums. Lukashenka, a former Soviet officer, was re-elected in March, amid claims of ballot-rigging and intimidation, sparking sanctions by Western governments.

Yet the cardinal has insisted political issues are beyond his responsibility.

With only a few dozen priests after Soviet rule, Cardinal Swiatek had to recruit Catholic clergy from neighboring Poland. In 1995, when Polish priests made up half the 261 priests working Belarus, a new law required visiting clergy to obtain central government approval.

However, although several priests have since been ordered out of the country, the cardinal has denied being pressured.

"The state authorities have clearly spelt out their view that the Catholic Church should be served by native pastors," Cardinal Swiatek told CNS in 2001. "But I've stressed this will take decades because of the exceptionally small number of local priests coming forward for ordination."

Cardinal Swiatek has hosted several meetings with Lukashenka. During the most recent in December, he thanked him for helping to fund restoration work on Minsk's Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral and praised his role in ensuring "mutual understanding" between church and state.

Despite a 2002 law that recognizes Catholicism's "spiritual, cultural and historic role," but also recognizes the "leading status" of the Orthodox churches, the Catholic Church in Belarus has expanded fourfold since 1991. A Catholic bishops' conference was inaugurated in 1999.

In a December 2000 declaration, Belarusian Catholic bishops pledged to forgive the church's Soviet persecutors -- "those who murdered innocent people, sent them to Siberia, imprisoned or deported them from their homeland."

Cardinal Swiatek told CNS that the government in Belarus was totally silent, but that parish churches were grateful for the declaration. Soviet experiences could only be understood, he added, "in the context of the Catholic faith."

"For most Catholics, it came as a surprise that this declaration was signed by a cardinal who still bears the marks of persecution on his own body," the church leader added. "Yet never, even when various sentences were passed against me, did I feel any desire for revenge. As people, we must forgive, remembering Christ's words: 'Judge not, that you may not be judged.'"

Auxiliary Bishop Antoni Dziemianko, takes over the Minsk-Mohilev Archdiocese until a permanent successor is named, and the cardinal's position as bishops' conference president is to be assumed by Bishop Aleksander Kaszkiewicz of Grodno.