A Catholic archbishop in Belarus protested Thursday after riot police blocked the entrance to a church in the capital, Minsk.
In a statement published Aug. 27, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk-Mohilev demanded an investigation into reports that police blocked the doors of the Catholic Church of Saints Simon and Helena Aug. 26.
“In accordance with the constitution of the Republic of Belarus, people have the right to pray by freely entering and leaving the church without hindrance. Blocking the exits of the shrine and creating obstacles to the free entry and exit of people is a gross violation of the rights of believers and freedom of religion,” he said.
The building, also known as the Red Church, faces Independence Square, a focus of demonstrations following a disputed presidential election Aug. 9.
According to media reports, dozens of protesters sought refuge in the church on Wednesday as police dispersed crowds in the square, arresting around 50 demonstrators. The authorities reportedly blocked the church doors for around 40 minutes.
Kondrusiewicz, who was not in Minsk at the time of the incident, said he supported a statement issued Aug. 26 by auxiliary Bishop Yury Kasabutski deploring the actions of the police.
“As chairman of the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Belarus, I strongly protest against the illegal actions of law enforcement agencies,” the archbishop said.
He added that, following an investigation, “the guilty should be punished in accordance with the legislation of the Republic of Belarus.”
He said: “These and similar actions of law enforcement officers do not help to ease tensions for the sake of peace and harmony in Belarusian society at a time when the Catholic Church calls for reconciliation and dialogue to resolve the unprecedented socio-political conflict in our country.”
Belarus, a country of 9.5 million people bordering Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, has seen widespread protests since the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko was declared the winner of the presidential election with 80% of the vote.
Electoral officials said that the opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, earned 10% of the vote. She was detained for several hours after complaining to the electoral committee, and has fled to Lithuania.
Police arrested thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets demanding a recount. Despite a severe crackdown, protests have continued across the country.
Kondrusiewicz met with Interior Minister Yuri Karaev Aug. 21 to express his concerns about the government’s heavy-handed response to the protests.
Lukashenko has served as president of Belarus since the office was established in 1994, three years after the country declared independence from the Soviet Union.
Catholics are the second-largest religious community in Belarus after Orthodox Christians, comprising roughly 15% of the population.?
Pope Francis appealed for justice and dialogue in Belarus in his Angelus address Aug. 16.
“I carefully follow the post-electoral situation in this country and appeal for dialogue, the rejection of violence and respect for justice and law. I entrust all Belarusians to the protection of Our Lady, Queen of Peace,” he said.