Belarus’s ecumenical Christian Vision opposition group has condemned the Pope’s pre-Christmas award to a sanctioned businessman.
Alexander Zaitsev, who was awarded the Order of St Gregory, is widely regarded as a close adviser to the country’s authoritarian president.
“This is the highest honour for lay persons recognised by the Pope, given for military or civilian merits in support of undertakings by the Apostolic See,” the group said in a statement.
“In June 2021, however, Zaitsev and his businesses were included in the European Union's blacklist of those benefiting from the regime, and they are now also included on other sanctions lists ... After Russia's attack on Ukraine, the United States also imposed sanctions on Zaitsev.”
The statement was published amid rising concern over the Vatican’s failure to condemn repression in Belarus, where numerous prominent Catholics have been beaten and jailed for protesting against the rigged August 2020 re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko after 26 years in power.
It said the handing of the order to Zaitsev, the first Belarusian to receive it, by Archbishop Iosif Staneuski of Minsk-Mogilev during November had not been reported by the country's Catholic media.
It added that no information had been made public about Church links to the businessman, whose companies include the US-sanctioned Sohra Group, registered in the United Arab Emirates, but said Zaitsev was believed to have provided funding for several Church-building projects.
Belarus opposition groups have argued against current Vatican policy of appeasing the Lukashenka regime.
The Belarusian authorities barred the Church's leader, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, from re-entering the country in autumn 2020 and has also imposed restrictions on the Catholic Caritas network.
In August, a Catholic primary school in Minsk was forcibly closed without official explanation, while in September the capital's landmark Catholic church of Saints Simon and Helena, popularly dubbed the Red Church, was locked after a small fire by local officials, who ordered the indefinite removal of all religious objects and broke up later protests.
The Red Church was visited in late December by the Vatican's Minsk-based Nuncio, Archbishop Ante Jozic, who told a November reception that Vatican-Belarus relations were being “supplemented with new wonderful pages”.
Archbishop Jozic has not reacted publicly to the arrest of at least 10 priests and many lay Catholics since the 2020 protests.