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Cardinal who survived gulag dies aged 96

Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek in an undated photo (CNS photo/Catholic Press Photos)

Retired Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek of Minsk-Mohilev, Belarus, has died at the age of 96.

The cardinal retired just five years ago after more than 65 years of active ministry and several run-ins with the Soviet police.

In a telegram of condolence, Pope Benedict XVI said: “I recall the courageous witness he gave to Christ and his Church in particularly difficult times, as well as the enthusiasm with which he later contributed to the spiritual rebirth of his country.”

Kazimierz Swiatek was born on October 21, 1914, into a Polish family in Valga, now in Estonia. When he was a young boy, he and his family were exiled to Siberia by the Russian tsar.

The whole family was allowed to return to Belarus after the 1917 Russian Revolution, and he was ordained to the priesthood in 1939. Two years later, he was arrested by Soviet police and condemned to death as a “reactionary cleric.” He escaped and resumed his pastoral work when Nazi Germany’s army invaded in June 1941.

But in 1944, when Belarus changed hands again, he was arrested again, sentenced to 10 years in a labour camp and sent back to Siberia.

Released at the end of his sentence in 1954, Cardinal Swiatek ministered in Pinsk until 1991 when Pope John Paul II created the Archdiocese of Minsk-Mohilev and named him archbishop.

Created a cardinal in 1994, he continued to serve as archbishop until 2006 when he was already past the age of 91.

In 2004, he was honored by an Italian Catholic foundation as a living witness of the faith; in his acceptance speech he said that in Belarus “every parish, every village, every family has its witnesses of faith who suffered, some even offering up their lives for their faith”.

Meeting the cardinal and foundation members later, Pope John Paul said the cardinal had followed “the Way of the Cross of persecution, carrying the cross of prison, of unjust condemnation and of the labor camps with their burden of toil, cold and hunger”.