Belarus' authoritarian president invited Pope Benedict XVI

MINSK, Belarus, June 21,2008 Belarus' authoritarian president invited Pope Benedict XVI to the mostly Orthodox former Soviet republic, the presidential press service said in a statement Friday.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko made the offer the same day he met with Vatican's No. 2 official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who is in the country to preside at the weekend consecration of the first Catholic church to be built in the capital city, Minsk, since 1910.

The Orthodox church, which includes about 80 percent of the population, wields significant clout in Belarus through a 2003 agreement it signed with the government.

But the Vatican under Benedict has been pursuing a goal of outreach to the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians. A trip to Belarus by Benedict could move the Vatican and Russian Orthodox Church one step closer to a meeting and the ultimate goal of healing the nearly 1,000-year schism between the two main branches of Christianity.

Lukashenko is also desperate to boost his reputation ahead of September's parliamentary elections including hiring a British public relations firm in March to package his policies in for Western consumption.

Lukashenko met Friday with Bertone, the Holy See's secretary of state, when the president indicated approval of an agreement between Belarus and the Holy See that would give the Catholic Church the legal right to work with government institutions in promoting its values.

"Our co-operation answers all the demands of our society, its values and orientations," Lukashenko said, according to Friday's statement from the presidential press service. It was unclear when the agreement would be signed.

Bertone said the Vatican would help Belarus "find its place in the world."

"The Catholic Church will try to ensure that Belarus has a significant place in the international arena," Bertone said Friday in comments shown on state TV.

Bertone is the Vatican's highest-ranked official ever to visit Belarus.

Minsk-based political analyst Yaroslav Romanchuk said Friday's developments were the upshot of successful bargaining.

"The Vatican is realizing a long-held strategy of expanding throughout Belarus and getting access to state structures," Romanchuk said.

Lukashenko, for his part, will use the Vatican to "lobby for his type of politics" using its sway within the European Union and the United States, he said. Furthermore, the Vatican will uphold the sovereignty of Belarus, which Lukashenko fears may eventually fall into Russia's hands, Romanchuk said.

Catholic-Orthodox relations in the former Soviet Union have been particularly thorny following the demise of the Soviet Union, with the Orthodox accusing the Vatican of trying to poach for converts. The Vatican insists it is just looking after the welfare of its tiny flock there.

The tensions have prevented a meeting between the Russian Patriarch Alexy II and the pope.

Property disputes have aggravated attempts to improve relations between Catholics and Orthodox in the former Soviet Union, and were one of the reasons John Paul II, a Slav, never realized his dream of making a papal pilgrimage to Russia.


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