Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz conducts a service on Christmas Eve at a cathedral following his arrival in Minsk, Belarus December 24, 2020. REUTERS-Stringer-File Photo

Pope Francis on Sunday accepted the resignation of the head of the Catholic Church in Belarus, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, who was banned from Belarus last year after angering President Alexander Lukashenko.

Kondrusiewicz turned 75 on Sunday, the age at which bishops are required to submit resignation letters to the Pope, which he then decides whether to accept.

In a statement announcing the Archbishop’s resignation, the Vatican said Bishop Kazimierz Wielikosielec of the Diocese of Pinsk in western Belarus would take his place.

Kondrusiewicz angered Lukashenko by defending the rights of anti-government protesters, who have been calling for the president’s resignation since a disputed election on Aug. 9.

The Archbishop was denied entry to Belarus the same month on his return from a ceremony in neighbouring Poland.

The event led to tensions between the Church and the government, and the Vatican sent a special envoy to negotiate on Kondrusiewicz’s behalf, with diplomats working for almost five months to secure the Archbishop’s return.

He returned to Belarus on Dec. 24, when Christian communities celebrate Christmas Eve.

Belarusians overwhelmingly observe Orthodox Christianity, but the country has small Catholic minorities, observing the Roman rite common in Poland or the Eastern rite found in neighbouring Ukraine.

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