WARSAW, Poland — A Belarus church spokesman defended Catholics during the current crisis after a bishop was threatened with prosecution for "inciting hatred against government officials."

The prosecutor-general handed a written warning to Auxiliary Bishop Yury Kasabutski, currently running the Minsk-Mohilev Archdiocese during the forced exile of Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the bishops' conference president.

The spokesman said comments by Bishop Kasabutski "were taken out of context."

"Clearly, the authorities haven't liked his forceful public statements," Father Yuri Sanko added. "But this is what the church does -- we aren't against the government, just praying for peace and conversion."

In a Nov. 19 interview with Catholic News Service, he said Bishop Kasabutski had been "treated politely and calmly," but added that the Catholic Church saw no reason to "change its way of speaking and acting."

"Everything we say and do is based on the Gospel -- if someone wants to read that in an extremist way, they can always do so," Father Sanko said.

Tensions are high in Belarus, where mass protests have continued since the disputed Aug. 9 reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko. They heightened following the death of artist Raman Bandarenka, who died Nov. 12 after he was beaten and arrested when masked men arrived in Minsk's Chervyakova Street to dismantle his display of national flags.

The 31-year-old was commemorated at Catholic and Orthodox church services.

Preaching at a Nov. 13 Mass in Minsk's Blessed Virgin Cathedral, broadcast live on the church's news website, Bishop Kasabutski said Catholics had been left "shocked, grieving and pained" by Bandarenka's death and were "praying daily for an end to violence," which was "spreading as new victims appeared."

He added that it was "becoming harder for people to forgive," but said "fraternity despite divisions" offered the best way of honoring Bandarenka and others "who died for their beliefs, for national prosperity and a better future for all Belarusians."

Opposition media said dozens more were arrested Nov. 15 when riot police broke up a shrine of flowers and crosses at the site of the artist's arrest.

Bishop Kasabutski later said the shrine's destruction had highlighted "increasing fear of the Belarusian people by the state government."

"We all know and see well what is happening in our beloved Belarus -- violence, torture, disdain for human dignity, aggression by state security agencies toward peaceful citizens," the bishop said on social media Nov. 15.

"The arrest of so many peaceful citizens should intimidate others, but all these repressions only strengthen us ... nor should we forget to join in prayer for those whose hands are covered with human blood."

In a Nov. 18 statement, the prosecutor's office said the bishop's "aggressive tone" had "deliberately raised the level of tension in society, inciting hatred against government officials, including law enforcement agencies."

It added that religious organizations were not allowed to "assess the legality of actions by officials and citizens" and said the government's commissioner for religions and nationalities would now "eliminate the identified violations and take additional measures."

Father Sanko told CNS the Catholic Church was not "legally assessing state officials," but "only calling for things to be done in a humane, cultured way, without igniting tensions."

He added that Catholics still awaited the return of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, who was unexpectedly barred from crossing the border with Poland Aug. 31, but said hopes were high a new Vatican nuncio, Archbishop Ante Jozic, would use "legal and diplomatic procedures" to help him.

He said Archbishop Kondrusiewicz was "deeply worried about his church and faithful."

"We are living and working within the law of our country, reacting in a religious way on behalf of those hurt or killed. At present, we've no idea how the situation will develop."