A Catholic priest who fled Belarus after being jailed for condemning rights abuses urged his country's bishops to do more for church members facing prison and persecution.

Father Viachaslau Barok, former finance officer of the Vitebsk Diocese, told Catholic News Service Sept. 28 that he could not criticize the bishops' silence on public issues, because "every person who speaks their thoughts faces grave dangers."

"The silence can be explained by the fact that Belarus is an occupied country, ruled not just by (President Alexander) Lukashenko but also by Moscow -- everyone understands you'll face prison if you speak publicly about the need for truth, justice and the rule of law," said the priest, who currently ministers to the Polish church's pastorate for exiled Belarusian Catholics in Warsaw.

"But it's another matter when someone moves toward cooperating with the government. We've seen how the Lukashenko regime tries to reach out to church leaders, using them to show everything is fine. If they (Catholic leaders) start supporting such rulers, this poses a more serious problem."

Father Barok, now 47, left his parish in Rasony, Belarus, in July 2021 with the agreement of his bishop.

He said around half a million people had been forced to leave Belarus since August 2020, when mass protests against Lukashenko's reelection met with harsh repression.

The Belarusian bishops' conference has not referred to the arrests and prison sentences on its website and news portal and has avoided human rights issues since January 2021, when its former president, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusewicz, was allowed back into the country after five months' enforced exile.

Father Barok told CNS: "A bishop must be the first to show courage and tell the truth. If one of his innocent priests goes to prison and he doesn't defend him, then a bishop isn't fulfilling his mission."

Father Barok said many laypeople and priests had faced hardship and suffering "for staying faithful to Christian values," and these would be offered help through a new Solidarity Fund, set up by the ecumenical Christian Vision organization to help Christians facing repression in the former Soviet state.

"I will be on the committee with Orthodox and Protestant clergy, and our task will be to verify assistance requests and decide where needs are greatest," said Father Barok, who was jailed in December 2020 after a closed trial. He had condemned Belarus' totalitarian methods in social media posts.

"Many people are in a precarious situation after enduring political persecution -- especially now, when world attention is so much diverted to the war in Ukraine."

Human rights groups say at least 1,260 political prisoners are currently jailed in Belarus, which has faced Western sanctions for allowing its territory to be used by Russian forces during the Ukraine war.

In May 2021, a prominent lay Catholic, Vitold Ashurak, died of mistreatment during a five-year sentence for participating in protests and rosary prayers, while in December a Catholic mother of five, Volha Zalatar, was jailed for four years for joining an internet chat site from her Minsk home.

Christian Vision said up to three dozen Catholic and Orthodox clergy have received criminal sentences since August 2020.

The organization said that in September, Dzianis Ivashyn, a Catholic journalist from Grodno, was jailed for 13 years on treason charges after a closed court session, while a 68-year-old Catholic teacher, Emma Stepulenok, also faced trial for alleged disorder offenses.

Father Barok told CNS that Christian prisoners were denied "basic human rights" and forced to endure "unimaginable conditions."

"They have no possibility to take part in prayers or other religious practices, and many are afraid even to seek this," the priest said. "Nor do they have any right to see a priest. They must ask a bishop or the apostolic nunciature to arrange this, and even then the request may be ignored, while any meeting will be tightly restricted."