World News

European bishops demand Belarus allow return of Catholic leader

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Roman Catholic bishops urged Belarus’s leader Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday to let its most senior cleric come back into the country.

Minsk’s archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, who has angered Lukashenko by defending the rights of anti-government protesters, was stopped at the border on Monday as he was returning home from a ceremony in neighbouring Poland.

Lukashenko, who is facing the biggest challenge to his 26-year rule, told reporters the prelate had been barred because he had “dragged Catholic believers” into politics. “We do not care who he is,” Lukashenko said.

In a statement, the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE), called on Thursday for Kondrusiewicz’s “immediate return home” and a commitment to dialogue to resolve the crisis in Belarus.

A day earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter that Kondrusiewicz should be allowed to return home “so he can tend to his flock during the ongoing protests”.

Kondrusiewicz, 74, is the most senior Catholic prelate in Belarus and is a citizen of the former Soviet republic.

Last week, the archbishop issued a statement criticising riot police for blocking people from seeking refuge in a church in Minsk. On Aug. 19, he prayed outside a pre-trial detention centre where anti-government protesters were being held.

Lukashenko has been trying to strengthen his grip on power after weeks of mass protests and strikes following a disputed election. On Thursday he promoted hardline loyalists to top posts in his security apparatus. He blames the unrest on foreign aggression.

In a message read out during a service in Minsk cathedral on Thursday, Kondrusiewicz said he was praying “for the solution of the socio-political crisis in our country ... and my speedy return to my homeland”.

Pope Francis has called for respect for justice and a rejection of violence in Belarus.

The Switzerland-based CCEE represents the Catholic Church in 45 European countries.

Additional reporting by Matthias Williams in Kyiv; Editing by Andrew Heavens