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In his congratulation letter to the newly elected Pope Francis, Alexander Lukashenka invited the Pontiff to visit the "friendly Belarusian land".
Although two previous Popes declared the wish to come to Minsk, neither actually had a chance to meet the millions of Belarusian Catholics. Whereas Minsk remains unwanted in the West, the Vatican appears an important mediator between both sides. However, for the first non-European Pope in a hundreds of years, Belarus could be too exotic to make it a priority and visit the country.
Lukashenka has repeated on many occasions that he welcomes the Pope to Belarus. During a meeting with the Vatican's Nuncio in April 2012, he expressed the will to strengthen both the Catholic and Orthodox Church in Belarus. Pope John Paul II never received an invitation to visit Belarus. But in 2002, Vatican officials conducted discussions with Minsk on the issue. However, as happened with Moscow, the visit never materialised.
A breakthrough in Belarus-Vatican relations took place with the new Pope Benedict XVI who met with Alexander Lukashenka and his youngest son Mikalai in the Vatican in 2009. Significantly, it broke for a moment the diplomatic isolation of Minsk in the West. It also turned out to be Lukashenka's first trip to Western Europe since his 1999 visa ban was implemented. However, the Pope could not reciprocate the visit to Belarus. Instead, the Vatican’s Secretary, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, visited Belarus in 2009.
Support for Society
The Holy See has always supported the independent post-Soviet states. John Paul II in one of his audiences said to the representatives of the Belarusian Catholic clergy that “Belarus is the former Soviet republic that has undergone the least change since the fall of Communism, and is the least integrated into the rest of Europe”.
In May 2008, when Pope Benedict XVI addressed the new ambassador of Belarus to the Vatican, he said: ‘Please be assured that the Holy See will continue to support your nation in its efforts to affirm proper and legitimate aspirations for freedom and in her labours to foster the democratic process as a part of the great family of free and sovereign European nations.’
On 1 March 2008 Minsk was included in a special video link of Belarusian youth with the Pope. For the first time Belarusian Catholics could take part in the event. After the common prayer, the Pope made a speech to the Belarusian youth. Belarusian state media broadcasted the event.
Concordat: Still to Be Concluded
A possible concordat remains an unresolved issue between Belarus and the Vatican. A concordat is a special document concluded between a church and secular authorities to regulate bilateral relations, including the right to religious education and protection of religious freedoms.
The leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, nominally the largest religious group in Belarus, have already signed a number of agreements with the Belarusian authorities and view the initiative of a concordat with the Vatican with suspicion. The Patriarch of Moscow, Kiril, during his meeting with Lukashenka in September 2009 said that ‘Belorussia is not a bridge, nor a gateway, but a Western part of the Saint Rus, historical Rus’.
The 2009 visit of Lukashenka to the Holy See might have heralded a conclusion of the document. Nonetheless, until now the two sides have failed to conclude it. According to the head of Belarusian Catholics, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, the conclusion of the concordat would enhance the prestige of both the Roman-Catholic Church and Belarus in the international arena.
Concordats with countries where Catholics are in a minority are not unusual. For example, Montenegro was the first country with a majority of Orthodox citizens to conclude a concordat with the Vatican, in June 2012. During the act of conclusion of the agreement, Benedict XVI confirmed his support for the European integration ambitions of that country.
Through Vatican to the West?
Lukashenka’s 2009 visit to the Holy See remains remarkable for a few reasons. Ten years of isolation of Minsk might have given its leadership hope for improving the relationship with the West. Whereas the West spurns Lukashenka, he finds himself more comfortable with the East.
For Lukashenka, the visit to the Vatican was particularly prestigious at the moment when nobody in Europe wanted to do it. This was probably one of the reasons why the Apostolic nuncio in Belarus was the only diplomat who could visit the Belarusian prisoners of conscience.
The Vatican still appears as an important mediator, but also as a promoter of Western values. At the same time, the Pope with his moral authority is in a good position to improve the image of the West in Minsk, which is a subject of frequent attacks by Belarusian propaganda.
It is too early to speculate over the politics of the newly elected Pope. Most likely the new Pope does not have any special links or emotional attachment to Belarus. He was born and grew up in Argentina where most people are most likely not sure where Belarus is.
The two previous European Popes - John Paul II and Benedict XVI - carried a ‘regional historical burden’: both witnessed the atrocities of WWII and were aware of the post-war and transformation difficulties Eastern European societies faced.
However, the new Pope may wish to continue their activities and strengthen the position of the Church in the region as the previous leaders of the Holy See did. It will be an important event for Belarusian Catholics and for Belarus, but may raise concerns for those who will regard the visit as tacit support for "Europe's last dictatorship".
Paula Borowska is an analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre. Originally from Bialystok, she studied at the University of Gdansk and the University of Bologna.