John Paul II Encourages Rebirth of Church in Belarus

Country Has Most Repressive Law on Religious Liberty in Europe

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 10, 2003 ( John Paul II encouraged the rebirth of the Catholic Church in Belarus even as it faces new legal restrictions.

The Pope expressed his support today when he received the Catholic bishops of that country, who are in Rome for their quinquennial visit.

In his address the Holy Father said that Belarus is the former Soviet republic that has undergone the least change since the fall of Communism, and is the least integrated into the rest of Europe. Among those attending the papal audience was Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek, 88, archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev, a survivor of Siberian labor camps.

The Church in the Eastern country of 10 million has passed «the winter of violent persecution that lasted several decades» and, for several years, has experienced «a progressive, encouraging new beginning,» the Pope said.

He did not, however, refer to the new difficulties affecting the religious freedom of non-Orthodox in the Kansas-size country nestled between Poland and Russia.

Last Oct. 31, President Aleksandr Lukashenko approved what human rights groups called the most repressive law in Europe on religious freedom.

The law prohibits the registration of religious communities that were not established in the republic at the time of Soviet Union. Many communities were not acknowledged as registered since they were persecuted by the Communists.

The Pontiff had two fundamental instructions for Catholics in Belarus: to support the family — in order to regenerate the social fabric in the wake of Communism — and to foster fraternal relations with the Orthodox Church. Orthodox make up 40% of the population, Catholics 10.3%.

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