Belarus President Visits Pontiff

Says Church-State Problems «Are Gone»

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VATICAN CITY, APRIL 27, 2009 ( Past problems between the Belarusian government and the Catholic Church are gone, says the nation’s president, pointing to his audience today with Benedict XVI as a sign of better relations.

Alexander Lukashenko visited the Pope today, accompanied by the country’s foreign minister, Sergei Martinov. They subsequently met with the Holy Father’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, secretary for relations with states.

The Vatican reported that the discussions were «positive» and that attention was given to a wide range of topics, including the relationship between faith and reason, and interconfessional and intercultural dialogue.

«Attention also turned to the international issues associated with promoting peace and the true progress of humankind, as well as to certain internal problems of the country, questions concerning the Catholic Church in Belarus and the prospects for deeper collaboration between the two sides,» the Vatican communiqué added. «Finally the peaceful coexistence characterizing relations between the Catholic and Orthodox communities, and with other religious confessions, was noted.»

There were also press reports that Lukashenko invited the Pontiff to visit Belarus, but the Vatican statement did not confirm this.

Some 80% of Belarus’ 9.6 million people are Orthodox, and the Orthodox Church there maintains a close link to the Moscow Patriarchate.

Lukashenko in a meeting with the press last Thursday, characterized the visit as a positive step in relations between his government and the Catholic Church.

He contended that the visit «reflects the Roman Catholic hierarchs’ highest appraisal of our policy toward Catholics.»

«There were so many problems once in relations between the state and church, first of all the Catholic Church. Where are these problems now? They are gone,» he stated.

Growing closer

Lukashenko reported that he had a meeting earlier this month with the Catholic metropolitan archbishop of the capital of Belarus, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk. The president affirmed that during that meeting he had promised the «government will build up relations with the Roman Catholic Church.»

«We do our best to make these relations stronger and firmer,» he declared. As well, Lukashenko recalled during that meeting that he had recently met with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and that the two had discussed relations between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, the Pope and Metropolitan Kondrusiewicz.

«The Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church should be closer and deal with emerging issues without breaking Christian ties,” the president affirmed.

The Russian Orthodox Church, for its part, praised the Belarus president’s meeting with the Pope.

«Many Catholics live in Belarus, especially in the western part of the country,» Archpriest Georgy Ryabykh, deputy head of the Department of External Affairs of the Moscow Patriarchate, told Interfax-Religion last week. «For this reason, the relationships between the Orthodox and Catholic communities in Belarus are an important factor of stability and calm development of this situation. Consequently, the Belarusian president’s visit to the Vatican may promote a peaceful co-existence of these two communities.»

Lukashenko’s visit to the Pontiff came in the context of a trip he is making in Italy, the first Western nation he’s visited in 14 years.

Relations between Belarus and the European Union have not improved over the last 10 years, due to constitutional reforms promoted by Lukashenko, which have implied the restriction of liberties in Belarus. A 2004 revision removed presidential term limits.

The nation has retained closer political and economic ties to Russia than any of the other former Soviet republics.

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