Vatican envoy praises religious peace in Belarus

A senior Vatican envoy praised good relations between different faiths in Belarus on Thursday at the start of a visit which could help smooth the ex-Soviet state's turbulent relations with the West.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State, is to meet President Alexander Lukashenko and other officials during a five-day stay in the country accused in the West of crushing freedom of speech and assembly.

He is the first senior Vatican official to visit the country lying between Russia and three European Union members, where the Orthodox Church dominates, but Roman Catholics account for about 14 percent of 10 million residents.

Speaking after a meeting with the head of Belarus's Orthodox church, Bertone said his talks had proved "positive in terms of a mutual exchange. This visit underscores an atmosphere of cooperation between two faiths."

He later told the head of the State Committee on Religious Affairs: "I have come to express my gratitude for the way freedom of religion is being upheld in Belarus."

Lukashenko, barred from the United States and European Union, has sought in the past year to improve ties with the West by freeing several detainees, but new rows have erupted over calls for the release of a jailed opposition leader. Relations remain particularly strained with Washington.

But in terms of religion, Belarus is generally marked by tolerance.

Authorities have signed an accord on ties with the Orthodox church, but Catholic holidays are officially observed and the churches interact with little of the suspicion that bedevils ties in neighbouring Russia.

"The cardinal could be a sort of intermediary between Europe and Belarus. And an influential intermediary at that," said Yaroslav Romanchuk, head of the Mises Institute in Minsk.

"This is a way for authorities to act in Europe through the Vatican. If Lukashenko can show that Belarus respects religious rights, that would be a step towards breaking out of isolation."


Lukashenko describes himself as an "Orthodox atheist" and Catholics hope they, too, will one day also be able to sign an agreement on ties with authorities.

On his arrival in Minsk on Wednesday evening, Bertone made clear his visit had a big political dimension.

"The aim of my stay is to hold meetings with Belarussian officials to discuss bilateral cooperation and Belarus's role and place in the international community," he said.

In March, thousands packed Belarus's largest cathedral to attend a mass conducted in Rome by Pope Benedict and broadcast on large screens.

Benedict's predecessor, John Paul, visited several ex-Soviet states, but was unable to fulfil his dream of visiting Russia - or Belarus. Belarus's top Catholic cleric earlier this year said a papal visit was not yet on the agenda.

Relations between Rome and the 220-million Orthodox Church, divided since the Great Schism of 1054, grew more tense under John Paul.

Russian Orthodox patriarch Alexiy II rejects a papal visit on grounds that Catholics have tried to poach congregations and claim property in ex-Soviet states, particularly Ukraine - home to more than 5 million eastern-rite Catholics.