Byelorussian Cardinal Continues to Evangelize at 90

One of Few Survivors of Siberian Labor Camps

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ROME, OCT. 22, 2004 ( Byelorussian Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek, is one of the few survivors of the Siberian forced labor camps of the Stalin era who continues to give witness today.

The Archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev, who celebrated his 90th birthday on Thursday, however, does not seek refuge in nostalgia of the past. Today he prefers to speak about the numerous challenges posed by the new evangelization in his country.

Kazimierz Swiatek, born on Oct. 21, 1914, was ordained a priest on April 8, 1939. He was arrested by the Soviet Red Army in 1944, and spent five months in a Minsk prison.

«They did not shoot me because, as they said, they didn’t want to waste a bullet on me,» he said in a past interview with ZENIT. He was condemned to ten years of forced labor. After spending two years in Marwinsk, in Eastern Siberia, and because he had robust health and could endure the cold and work, he was sent to the Workuta camp, in the Arctic. He worked in construction there, enduring bitter cold and meager nourishment.

When he recovered his freedom, he returned to Minsk to continue his pastoral work amid the difficulties posed by the Communist regime. When the latter collapsed, John Paul II named him Archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev, charging him with the rebirth of the Catholic communities in Byelorussia. The Pope created him Cardinal in 1994.

On Sept. 27 of this year, the Holy Father awarded him the «Witness of the Faith» («Fidei Testis») prize, conferred by Italy’s Paul VI Institute.

During an interview at the headquarters of «Aid to the Church in Need» in Konigstein, Germany, Cardinal Swiatek explained that over the past 14 years «we can say that the Catholic Church has been reborn.»

«Many new churches have been built and the number of priests has grown,» he continued.

«An ecclesial hierarchy has been established, thanks primarily to a considerable number of Polish priests. We have four dioceses, four bishops and a cardinal. Byelorussia has an episcopal conference and two major seminaries with more than 100 future priests,» he said.

Among the challenges facing the Catholic Church in Byelorussia, and one of the «trickiest,» is the relationship with the governmental authorities.

Specifically, the Cardinal criticized the new law on confessions and religious groupings that «entails some limitations to religious activity.»

«So, for example, parishes must register and foreign priests need a visa to enter the country, and every year they must renew their residence permits. As a consequence, very few foreign priests have arrived in recent times.»

«Byelorussia is now free of theoretical atheism, but the influence of Western materialism is ever greater, and so the possibility arises of a transition to a practical materialism,» he clarified.

«Nevertheless, we resist because we are very rooted in our religious tradition. Christian roots are not that easy to eliminate. Thanks to this, Western influence encounters resistance and its influence isn’t felt too much. Therefore, I can state that hope in the future of the Church is justified.»

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