CHURCH leaders across Europe have urged an end to the refugee and migrant crisis in Belarus, although religious organisations inside the country have been careful not to criticise its authoritarian regime.
“We firmly condemn the exploitation of human dramas for actions against our sovereignty,” the Polish Catholic Bishops’ Conference wrote in a communiqué at the weekend.
“We ask our rulers to defend our borders, families, and homes effectively, while also taking trouble to recognise strangers in real need and provide them with necessary support in the Gospel spirit.”
The communiqué was published as Sunday collections were held in Poland’s 20,000 Roman Catholic parishes to support the thousands of people currently stranded on the country’s eastern frontier (Leader comment, 19 November).
The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) said that the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko had sought to “achieve political goals” by “instrumentalising” the refugees, but also accused Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania of violating international law by “sealing of their borders militarily”. The EKD backed initiatives by church and humanitarian groups to alleviate the “enormous suffering”.
“Thousands of women and men, families, and children are trapped in the border area, wandering in the forests, starving and freezing — as Christians, we cannot remain silent,” the EKD said in a joint statement last week with Belarus’s opposition-linked Christian Vision organisation.
“The right to asylum is a human right, and people seeking protection within the EU have the right to an individual, fair asylum procedure. The EU needs to apply humanity and the rule of law, not harshness and isolation.”
The Polish President, Andrzej Duda, declared a border state of emergency in September, after EU officials reported that Lukashenko’s regime was encouraging refugees from at least 20 countries to fly to Belarus aboard Russian and Turkish state airlines, and was transporting them to the border in retaliation for EU sanctions imposed on the grounds of human-rights abuses.
Aid agencies, however, have accused Poland of blocking proper asylum procedures and using illegal “push-backs”, after it deployed 15,000 troops with razor wire and announced plans for a border wall.
Tension escalated on 8 November, amid reports that Belarusian troops had helped to tear down Polish defences and handed teargas to migrants; and also that lasers were being used to distract Polish security forces, whose efforts are being supported by a small contingent of British troops.
AlamyPolish police officers and border guards near the Kuznica Bialostocka-Brusgi border crossing on Monday
In a mid-November statement, the Brussels-based Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) urged member states to show “practical solidarity”. The stranded migrants, especially children, the elderly, and the vulnerable, deserved “full respect for their dignity and fundamental rights, no matter what their legal status is”.
The RC Archbishop of Hamburg, the Most Revd Stefan Hesse, who has responsibility in the Church for migrants and refugees, accused Belarus officials of an “unbelievable abuse”, in “degrading suffering people to victims of a power-political intrigue”, but also appealed to the German government and its European partners to reform the EU’s “currently desolate” asylum system.
“Like smugglers, they brought thousands of people seeking protection, mainly from disaster areas of the Middle East, and left them stranded in late autumn without food, medical care or a roof over their heads,” Archbishop Hesse said last week. “But if the other side tramples on principles of humanity, we must stand up for the protection of human dignity even more, or risk losing our moral integrity.”
Churches in Belarus, however, have been careful not to criticise President Lukashenko, whose discredited August 2020 re-election after 26 years in power was followed by the brutal repression of public protests and has not been recognised by Western governments.
In a mid-November statement, Belarus’s Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish leaders backed the regime’s position and called on the EU to help the migrants to “realise their aspirations”.
“The tragic events related to the migrant crisis, currently unfolding on the peace-loving and long-suffering Belarusian land, the human grief and the pain of thousands of people freezing on the border of our states, prompted us to turn to you,” Metropolitan Venjamin said in the joint appeal, drafted at a Minsk meeting with the government’s Commissioner for Religious and National Affairs.
“As leaders of the major confessions of the Republic of Belarus, we appeal to the politicians of the economically developed and prosperous European states. It is not the fault of these people that they have left their native lands fleeing the hostilities in search of a better fate for themselves and their children. These people are seeking the way to their better future in Europe through Belarus.”
At least ten people were reported to have died of hypothermia in the wooded border zone by Monday, as Belarus officials continued to ferry people to the area and encourage them to force their way into Poland.
Speaking during a weekend visit to the Baltic states, the Prime Minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, warned that the crisis risked becoming “a prelude to something much worse”, as more than half the Poles questioned in a survey in the daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita said that they feared that the crisis could escalate into an armed conflict.
A spokesman for Poland’s Foreign Ministry, Lukasz Jasina, warned his country’s Catholic Information Agency on Sunday that President Lukashenko appeared to be “becoming irrational” in seeking to incite “various types of conflict”. His “satanic plan” to use the migrants to pressure the EU had not been foreseen.
The vice-president of EKD, Bishop Petra Bosse-Huber, condemned Lukashenko’s “criminal and cynical” actions, but warned that television images about “interpretative sovereignty” also concealed terrible suffering.
“People are not weapons, and Europe should not react to blackmail attempts by throwing law and humanity overboard,” Bishop Bosse-Huber, who is the chief pastor for German Lutheran parishes outside Germany, said.