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The authorities in Belarus detained two Catholic priests May 8, amid an ongoing crackdown on civil society in the East European country.

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima in Shumilina, Belarus. Aleksey Bashni via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate’s Polish province, which oversees the order’s mission in neighboring Belarus, confirmed May 10 the detention of Fr. Andrzej Juchniewicz, O.M.I., and Fr. Pavel Lemekh, O.M.I.


The Polish province said that the priests, based at the diocesan shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Shumilina, northern Belarus, were in custody awaiting trial “for alleged subversive activities against the Belarusian state.”

O.M.I. superior general Fr. Luis Ignacio Rois Alonso said May 10 that the order was “deeply concerned about the news of the imprisonment of two of our brothers in Belarus.”

“I am aware that the entire charismatic family is also praying earnestly for them,” he wrote in a message to the Polish province’s leader Fr. Marek Ochlak. 

“If you have the chance to communicate with our brothers, please pass on our warmest greetings and reaffirm our support during these difficult times.”

The human rights monitoring group Christian Vision for Belarus said on social media that the two priests, who are citizens of Belarus, were held in a detention center in Vitebsk before their trial, which took place May 10 via Skype. 

“The clergy were subjected to administrative arrest,” it said. “Rev. Lemekh got 10 days, and Rev. Yukhnievich 15 days of arrest.”

Christian Vision for Belarus said that Yukhnievich is the leader of a group representing the country’s monastic communities, and the priests were detained after a meeting of the Diocese of Vitebsk’s priests and religious at their church. 

Yukhnievich and Lemekh join a growing list of clergy who have had brushes with the Belarusian authorities in recent years.

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Belarus, a nation of more than 9 million people bordered by Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine, has been led by the authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko since 1994.

Tensions between Church and state increased dramatically following a disputed presidential election in 2020. After Lukashenko, who describes himself as an “Orthodox atheist,” claimed victory with over 80% of the vote, there were mass protests followed by police repression. 

Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the country’s most prominent Catholic leader, was blocked from returning to Belarus after a trip to Poland. He was only readmitted months later, following the Vatican’s intervention, but retired from his post of Archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev shortly afterward.

Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Belarus has become ever more tightly linked with Russia. The country hosts Russian troops, who invaded Ukraine across its border, which runs close to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.  

Catholics, who are a minority in the predominantly Eastern Orthodox country, have experienced repeated difficulties with the authorities in the past three years. But it is hard to determine the extent of the problem as press freedom is restricted in Belarus.

The authorities reportedly detained two Catholic priests in the space of a week last November. Orthodox and Protestant Christians have also had numerous contacts with the authorities, according to Christian Vision for Belarus.

The Belarusian government insists that it is fighting a battle against “extremism.” But human rights activists say it defines the concept broadly, applying it to any actions, public statements, or social media posts it sees as critical of the authorities. 

State media frequently stress the strong ties between Belarus and the Holy See. Full diplomatic relations were established between the two sovereign entities in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to which Belarus belonged.

In a May 13 message, Belarusian bishops’ conference president Archbishop Iosif Staneuski invited Catholics to pray for priests.

“From May 13 to October, we will ask Mary, our Mother, for help in our vocations and endurance in our vocations, so that we may all be one,” he said.