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Jailed Catholic Belarusian human rights activist receives Nobel Peace Prize

“It is a dramatic mistake to separate human rights from the values of identity and independence,” stated the 60-year-old Ales Bialiatski, who has been jailed since 2021, also repeating the famous words of St. John Paul II: “Do not be afraid!”

Left: Ales Bialiatski in 2014, during the Paweł Włodkowic Award ceremony in the Polish Senate. (Image: The Chancellery of the Senate of the Republic of Poland/Wikipedia); right: Graffiti in Gdańsk depicting Bialiatski. (Image: Andrzej Otrębski/Wikipedia)

On December 10th, Natallia Pinchuk traveled to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of her husband, jailed Belarusian human rights activist Ales Bialiatski (who shared the Prize with the Russian human rights organization Memorial and Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties).

Bialiatski is a devout Catholic, and his Nobel lecture, delivered by his wife, highlighted the relationship between human rights and independence in resisting abuses of political power:

It is a dramatic mistake to separate human rights from the values of identity and independence. I have been involved in the independent underground movement since 1982, in fact since I was young man at 20 years of age. Its aim was to achieve a democratic independent Belarus in which human rights would be respected. There can be no Belarus without democracy and there can be no human rights without an independent Belarus. And civil society should have such a degree of independence that it guarantees the safety of a person from abuses of state power.

At the conclusion, he quoted Pope St. John Paul II:

And on December 10, I want to repeat for everyone: “Do not be afraid!” These were the words that Pope John Paul II said in the 1980s when he came to communist Poland. He didn’t say anything else then, but it was enough. I believe because I know that spring always comes after winter.

Since 1994, Belarus has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko, who has remained in power through rigged elections. Over the past twenty-eight years, dissidents have been imprisoned or “disappeared.” Lukashenko enjoys a close relationship with Vladimir Putin, and there had once been talk of unifying the two countries.

Meanwhile, various religious groups, including Catholics, are subjected to harassment: Church buildings are seized, while numerous priests have been imprisoned.

In 1996, Bialiatski founded the Viasna (Spring) Human Rights Center, which provides assistance to the families of jailed opponents of the regime. For his activities, Bialiatski has been imprisoned twice: from 2011 to 2014 and, without trial, since 2021.

In the 1990s, Bialiatski was a pivotal figure in the revival of the Catholic Church in Belarus from the Soviet catacombs. Along with his associates, he published Belarus’ first Catholic magazine. As co-founder of the Belarusian Catholic Assembly, Bialiatski campaigned for the regime to return churches to the faithful, make religious holidays public ones, and use the Belarusian rather than Russian language in the liturgy.

Furthermore, Bialiatski educated Polish priests sent as missionaries to his country in the Belarusian language.

Ales Bialiatski is by no means the first Catholic to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Throughout the decades, numerous men and women of faith have received the award. Protestant clergymen Martin Luther King, Jr. and Archbishop Desmond Tutu received it for their non-violent opposition to racial segregation in the United States and South Africa, respectively.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a devout Orthodox believer, received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his many volumes documenting Soviet atrocities, although arguably the deeply humanistic nature of Solzhenitsyn’s work and his efforts to inform the world of communist crimes against humanity also merited a Nobel Peace Prize.

Numerous Catholics have been awarded as well. In 1958, the Belgian Dominican Dominique Pire received the Nobel Peace Prize for his aid to displaced persons in post-war Europe, which was marked by border changes, destroyed or seized property, and ethnic violence.

By far the best-known Catholic to win the Nobel Peace Prize, however, was St. Mother Teresa. In 1979, the Albanian nun famous for her tireless work among the world’s most destitute in the slums of Calcutta received the award. Her Nobel lecture contained one of the most compelling arguments against abortion:

I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing – direct murder by the mother herself. And we read in the Scripture, for God says very clearly: Even if a mother could forget her child – I will not forget you – I have carved you in the palm of my hand. We are carved in the palm of His hand, so close to Him that unborn child has been carved in the hand of God.

The following year, the Nobel Peace Prize was given to Catholic Argentinean human rights activist Adolfo Pérez Esquivel for his opposition to the military dictatorship of Jorge Videla, during which thirty thousand people “disappeared,” thousands of children were stolen from their mothers by the state, and countless political prisoners (including Esquivel himself) were tortured. Shortly after his compatriot Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope in 2013, Esquivel vigorously opposed accusations that the future Pope Francis had been complicit in the crimes of Videla’s regime.

Three years later, the Nobel Peace Prize went to Lech Walesa, the leader of Poland’s Solidarity movement, which was strongly influenced by the Church’s social teaching and Pope St. John Paul II and succeeded in peacefully defeating the nation’s communist regime. Today, Walesa remains a daily Mass-goer, while as President of Poland in the 1990s he vetoed legislative proposals to legalize abortion on demand.

In 2000 Kim Dae-jung (Christian name: Thomas More), then President of South Korea, received the Nobel Peace Prize for his decades of opposition to his nation’s dictatorship and leading it to democracy. In 1980, Kim was sentenced to death because of his participation in protests. St. John Paul II successfully appealed to South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan for clemency, and the sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. During a 2000 audience with the pope, Kim thanked the pontiff for having saved his life.

Finally, in 2007 the Filipino Jesuit priest and physics professor Jose Ramon Villarin shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former US Vice President Al Gore for their campaigning against global warming; however, Gore completely overshadowed his co-recipient.

Unfortunately, a discussion of Catholic Nobel Prize laureates must include Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, the 1996 winner of the award who, until recently, was a source of pride for Catholics. The Apostolic Administrator of Dili, East Timor, during the Catholic-majority Asian nation’s brutal occupation by Indonesia, Belo condemned the violence, provided sanctuary to victims of Indonesian terror, and alerted the world’s attention to his nation’s tragic situation.

Recently, however, it has emerged that Belo had sexually abused adolescent boys in the 1990s and has been sanctioned by the Vatican.

Several great Catholic leaders were also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In the 1970s, members of Britain’s Parliament nominated St. Oscar Romero for his defense of victims of poverty and the brutal military dictatorship in El Salvador. Meanwhile, in 1978 Christian Democracy International nominated Blessed Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński of Poland for his consistent defense of his nation’s dignity against communist repression.

In 2003, Pope St. John Paul II was considered a favorite for the award for his vigorous opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq. One can only wonder if the fact that this pope, a vocal advocate of the world’s poor and oppressed throughout his twenty-seven-year pontificate, was snubbed because of his simultaneous defense of the rights of the unborn and of traditional morality.

In Matthew 6:2, we read, “When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others.”

Certainly, none of the Nobel laureates and nominees mentioned in this article were motivated by vanity. Yet the recognition of their deeds by the Nobel Committee can help the world become more acquainted with concrete examples of how the Catholic faith can inspire real non-violent change.

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About Filip Mazurczak 79 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a historian, translator, and journalist. His writing has appeared in First Things, the St. Austin Review, the European Conservative, the National Catholic Register, and many others. He teaches at the Jesuit University Ignatianum in Krakow.

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