European bishops demand Belarus allow return of Catholic leader

VATICAN CITY, Sept 3- Roman Catholic bishops urged Belarus’s leader Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday to let its most senior cleric come back into the country. In a statement, the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe, called on Thursday for Kondrusiewicz’s “immediate return home” and a commitment to dialogue to resolve the crisis in Belarus.

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY, Sept 3 (Reuters) – Roman Catholic bishopsurged Belarus’s leader Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday to letits most senior cleric come back into the country.

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

Lukashenko, who is facing the biggest challenge to his26-year rule, told reporters the prelate had been barred becausehe had “dragged Catholic believers” into politics. “We do notcare who he is,” Lukashenko said.

In a statement, the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences ofEurope (CCEE), called on Thursday for Kondrusiewicz’s “immediatereturn home” and a commitment to dialogue to resolve the crisisin Belarus.

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

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

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

Lukashenko has been trying to strengthen his grip on powerafter weeks of mass protests and strikes following a disputedelection. On Thursday he promoted hardline loyalists to topposts in his security apparatus. He blames the unrest on foreignaggression.

In a message read out during a service in Minsk cathedral onThursday, Kondrusiewicz said he was praying “for the solution ofthe socio-political crisis in our country … and my speedyreturn to my homeland”.

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

The Switzerland-based CCEE represents the Catholic Church in45 European countries.(Additional reporting by Matthias Williams in Kyiv; Editing byAndrew Heavens)

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