Pope Francis on Tuesday named a new Catholic archbishop for the capital city of Belarus.
The Vatican announced on Sept. 14 that the pope had chosen Bishop Iosif Staneuski, general secretary of the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Belarus, to lead the archdiocese of Minsk-Mohilev.
The appointment comes at a challenging time for the Catholic Church in Belarus, a country of 9.6 million people bordering Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.
The country has seen widespread protests since longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko was declared the winner of a presidential election in August 2020 with 80% of the vote.
That month, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, Staneuski’s predecessor as archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev, was barred from returning to Belarus after traveling to Poland.
Kondrusiewicz, then president of the Belarusian bishops’ conference, had prayed outside of a prison where detained protesters were reportedly tortured and demanded an investigation into reports that riot police blocked the doors of a Catholic church in Minsk while clearing away protesters from a nearby square.
The authorities claimed that he was turned away at the border because his passport was “invalid,” inviting him to appeal against the decision.
The Vatican tried to overcome the impasse by sending Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s equivalent of a foreign minister, to Belarus to discuss the situation with Belarusian officials. But the talks did not result in an immediate breakthrough.
After months of further Vatican diplomatic activity, Kondrusiewicz was permitted to return to his homeland on Dec. 24.
Pope Francis accepted the archbishop’s resignation on Jan. 3, his 75th birthday, shortly after he arrived in Belarus after his four-month enforced exile.
On the same day, the pope named Bishop Kazimierz Wielikosielec as apostolic administrator of Minsk-Mohilev archdiocese.
Speaking at a farewell Mass in Minsk, Kondrusiewicz said: “Changing a bishop after he reaches the age of 75 is a normal thing. I leave as a ruling bishop, but as a bishop I remain.”
“It is important that, despite the change of bishops, the Church remains, operates and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
The Church has continued to encounter difficulties since Kondrusiewicz’s departure. It recently protested after a regional government newspaper published a front-page cartoon of a priest wearing a swastika.
An estimated 1.6 million civilians, including around 500,000 Jews, died during the three-year Nazi occupation of the country.
Aleksandr Rumak, Commissioner for Religious and Ethnic Affairs of Belarus, later assured the Church that the cartoon did not reflect the state’s official position and was unacceptable.
The state-owned news agency BelTA reported on Sept. 9 that Archbishop Ante Jozić, the apostolic nuncio to Belarus, met with the country’s foreign minister Vladimir Makei.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “The minister emphasized the inviolability of the official approaches towards the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus, the inadmissibility of inciting religious intolerance and the importance of preserving ethno-confessional harmony in the country in general.”
“In this context, one should not attach any importance to individual, solely subjective attempts to present the situation differently.”
Bishop Iosif Staneuski, 52, has served as an auxiliary bishop of Grodno, western Belarus, since 2014.
He was born on April 4, 1969, in the village of Zanevich, near Grodno. He was ordained a priest of Grodno diocese on June 17, 1995.
In 1999, he earned a Licentiate in Canon Law from the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland.
He served as a lecturer, prefect, and ultimately rector of the major seminary in Grodno. He oversaw the pastoral formation of young priests of Grodno diocese from 2007 to 2013.
He was elected secretary general of the Belarusian bishops’ conference in 2015 and for a second time in April this year.
The archdiocese of Minsk-Mohilev dates back to 1798 and took on its present form in 1991. In addition to a cathedral in Minsk, the archdiocese has a co-cathedral in Mohilev (also known as Mogilev), a city in eastern Belarus.