Belarusian Cardinal Hopes for Papal Visit

«Sooner or Later Alexy II´s Veto Will Be Discarded»

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ROME, JULY 6, 2001 ( John Paul II´s successful trip to Ukraine has raised hopes for a papal visit to Belarus, despite the opposition of Moscow´s Orthodox patriarch to the Pope´s presence in that part of the world, a cardinal says.

«We cannot exclude that Patriarch Alexy will give up his to date intransigent position, in face of the potential danger of isolation,» said Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek, archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev. «I think that sooner or later, his veto will be discarded.»

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II strongly opposed the papal trip to predominantly Orthodox Ukraine, seeing it as proselytism on the part of Rome.

While the Pope was visiting Ukraine, Alexy visited Belarus. There he said that the Slav peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus should stay united by Orthodoxy.

«There are forces in the world whose soul is against the unity of the Slav peoples,» Alexy said in a joint statement with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. «Those forces, using peaceful rhetoric, want to break that unity apart and are engaged in attempts at spiritual and political expansion.»

The reconstruction of Catholic Church structures in Belarus began a decade ago, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Unlike other former Soviet republics, where Catholics are a small minority, in Belarus they number close to 2 million, or 20% of the population. Most are Polish.

Cardinal Swiatek, president of his country´s bishops´ conference, and a survivor of Siberian forced labor camps, said that «in these last years, the Church has succeeded in healing moral wounds caused by the Soviet system, winning respect not only among believers but also among those who in the past tried to destroy her.»

Thanks to continued efforts, the situation of the Church in Belarus today is calmer than it is in Russia, despite sporadic tensions and unresolved questions.

«Since the process of the normalization of religious life began, we see today that great progress has been made,» Cardinal Swiatek said.

«The number of priests has increased from 60 in 1991 to 283 today, and the number of Churches has also grown: 300 parishes, in four dioceses, and six bishops,» he said. «The former regime did not succeed in uprooting the faith; it created a spiritual vacuum and atheist propaganda did the rest.»

Belarus, about the size of Kansas, lies east of Poland and north of Ukraine. Its population is about 80% Orthodox.

In regard to the ecumenical dialogue, the cardinal said that «although the president of the republic, Alexander Lukashenko, places himself on the side of the Orthodox, he appreciates the Catholic Church and acknowledges its role in the rebirth of the national Belarus spirit.»

«There must be good will on both sides for the ecumenical dialogue to function,» the cardinal added. «Although it exists on our side, sadly, it is lacking in the other.»

He continued: «How can one speak of effective ecumenism if at the same time an anti-Catholic catechism is published, which offends all the dogmas, and the media points to the Church as a dangerous sect? Moreover, the visits of Orthodox clergy to Catholic Churches are rare, despite the fact that we constantly extend a hand of concord and understanding.»

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