One year ago, Father Andrej Bulchak, a Catholic priest with Polish citizenship, fled Belarus, a country where he had worked for 14 years. He was petrified of government persecution. His crime? He had produced an anti-war video about a young Belarusian girl who wanted to tell the people of Poland that the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine was not supported by their neighbors, the people of Belarus. The priest described the two-minute recording as “a cry of a young person for a free Ukraine.” That was enough to send him packing.

Bulchak’s case is not unique. On the day Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine began, another Catholic priest, Father Alexander Baran, posted a photo of the Ukrainian flag and the flag of the Belarusian opposition movement on social media. He was subsequently arrested, charged with “illegal picketing” and the “dissemination of extremist materials” and sentenced to 10 days in prison. Around the same time, Father Andrei Kevlich, another Belarusian Catholic priest, was detained and later fined for reposting content about the war from banned independent media. 

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has tightened the space for the Catholic Church and its priests in Belarus to criticize the government and its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although the clampdown on the Church began soon after the rigged presidential election in August 2020, which saw Lukashenko claim 80% of the vote, the Belarusian regime has taken advantage of the attention given to the war in Ukraine to gain an even greater hold over a key religious institution in Belarusian society. 

It has also proved to be an opportunity to end what the Belarusian government believes is a dangerous pocket of Western influence in a country that allows the Russian military to use its territory to wage its war on Ukraine.

For Catholics in Belarus, “the whole atmosphere has become one of fear,” said Natalia Vasilevich, a Belarusian theologian and human rights lawyer based in Germany. “Sermons are being watched, trust is even being tested inside some communities, even the social networks of priests are being checked. People cannot trust any structures anymore. They can only trust the relationships in front of them.”

Historically, the Belarusian Catholic Church has close ties to the Polish Catholic Church, which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, helped to beef up the numbers of the Belarusian Catholic clergy. By working to sever the ties between these two Churches, Lukashenko believes he has exorcized a malign Western influence hanging over the country’s second-largest religious community.

If the Catholic clergy in Belarus was hoping that the Vatican would advocate for their right to free speech, they have been mistaken. In fact, Vatican diplomacy has seriously weakened the ability of the Catholic Church in Belarus to withstand the slings and arrows of Lukashenko’s government. Instead of defending its priests, the Vatican’s ecclesiastical diplomats have taken a conciliatory tone with the Belarusian regime, ensuring that the Church’s high-level influence is not diminished. It’s a move reminiscent of Ostpolitik, a Cold-War era strategy that saw the Vatican open communication channels with the Communist governments of Eastern and Central Europe.

“The role of the Vatican in Belarus has been to make the Catholic Church less visible as a protesting institution,” said Vasilevich, the Belarusian theologian. The justification for such a move, Vasilevich argues, is that the Vatican has seized an opportunity to become a bridge between Lukashenko and the West while foreign diplomats close their doors in response to Belarus’ alliance with Russia. 

In November 2022, nine months after the first Russian tank rolled across Belarus’ border to invade Ukraine, the Vatican’s ambassador to Belarus gave a speech to celebrate 30 years of relations between the Holy See and Belarus. He stated that the relationship between the two states “continues to be supplemented with new wonderful pages.” His speech came weeks after mass was banned in Minsk’s iconic Catholic Red Church, which was damaged in a mysterious fire that September. Later that year the same Vatican ambassador, Ante Jozic, told Belarusian state TV that Minsk could host peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, a line also parroted by Lukashenko.

To Belarusian Catholics, no other example reflects the Vatican’s coziness with the Belarusian government than the case of Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz. After defending the rights of anti-government protesters in 2020, the widely respected cleric was denied entry to Belarus on his return from a ceremony in Poland. When he was eventually allowed to return to Minsk following an intervention from Pope Francis, Kondrusiewicz was forced to retire and replaced with a Belarusian bishop, Iosif Stanevsky, thought to be more sympathetic to the regime. In November 2022, Stanevsky gave a papal Order of St. Gregory to Alexander Zaitsev, a close ally of Lukashenko and businessman subject to EU sanctions. 

“Now there is no illusion among Belarusian Catholics about the Vatican’s stance. However, at the parish priest level, almost all Catholic priests are against the authorities,” said Aliaksei Lastouski, a researcher at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University in Sweden. The Vatican declined to comment for this article.

In response, Catholic priests in exile from Belarus have mobilized to counter the threats to Catholic priests who remain in the country. Father Viachaslau Barok, an exiled parish priest, sent a letter to Pope Francis that questioned the Vatican ambassador’s relationship with the Belarusian government and pleaded with the pontiff not to be swayed by the regime. “Everyone can see that by calling you ‘the best Pope,’ Lukashenko only seeks to hide behind the authority of St. Peter’s successor,” he wrote. 

It’s not only the Vatican. The Belarusian Orthodox Church, the largest religious denomination in the country, has also sought to placate the regime. After the 2020 presidential election, the leaders of the Orthodox Church were reported to have removed senior members known to be critical of Lukashenko. Since the full scale Ukraine invasion, it has transferred priests as punishment after they showed opposition to the war. This alliance between the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the state was on display when Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, visited Minsk last June to celebrate the 1,030th anniversary of Orthodoxy in Belarus, a visit that highlighted Moscow’s willingness to drag Belarus, a nation widely regarded as one of the most secular former Soviet states, into its religious sphere of influence. 

All the while Belarus’ Catholics are becoming less engaged with the Vatican and more frightened of their precarious position in the country. “The Vatican is no longer a pillar that you know will always be on your side,” said Vasilevich.