Will pope Francis visit Belarus? Lukashenka hopes so
In his congratulation letter to the newly elected Pope Francis, Aleksandr Lukashenka invited the Pontiff to visit the 'friendly Belarusian land'.
Although two previous Popes declared the wish to come to Minsk none actually had a chance to meet millions of Belarusian Catholics. Whereas Minsk remains unwanted in the West, Vatican appears an important mediator between both sides. However, for the first non-European Pope in hundreds of years Belarus could be too exotic to make it a priority and visit the country.
Lukashenka repeated at many occasions that he welcomed the Pope in Belarus. During the meeting with the Vatican's Nuncio in April 2012 he expressed the will to strengthen both Catholic and Orthodox Churches in Belarus. Pope John Paul II had never received invitation to visit Belarus. But in 2002 Vatican officials had conducted discussions with Minsk on that issue. However, as it happened with the possible Moscow, eventually the visit never materialised.
A breakthrough in Belarus-Vatican relations took place with a new Pope, Benedict XVI, who met with Aleksandr Lukashenka and his youngest son Mikalai in Vatican in 2009. Significantly it broke for a moment diplomatic isolation of Minsk within the West. It also turned to be Lukashenka's first trip to the Western Europe since 1999 visa ban. However, the Pope could not reciprocate the visit to Belarus. Instead of him, the Vatican’s Secretary, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone visited Belarus in 2009.
Support for the Society
The Holy See had always supported the independent post-Soviet states. John Paul II in one of the 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 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 in a 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 unsolved issue between Belarus and Vatican. Concordat is a special document concluded between a church and secular authorities to regulate bilateral relations including the right for religious education and protection of religious freedoms.
The leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, nominally the largest religious group in Belarus, already signed a number of agreements with the Belarusian authorities view the initiative of the concordat with Vatican with suspicion. 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 sides 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 minority are not unusual. For example, Montenegro was the first country with majority of Orthodox which concluded a concordat with Vatican already 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?
The 2009 Lukashenka’s 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 Vatican was particularly prestigious at the moment when nobody in Europe wanted to do it. This was probably one of the reasons why Apostolic nuncio in Belarus was the only diplomat who could visit the Belarusian prisoners of conscience.
Vatican still appears as an important mediator, but also as a promoter of the 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 the WWII and were aware of the post-war and transformation difficulties Eastern European societies faced.
However, the new Pope may wish to continue the activity and strengthen the position of the Church in the region as the previous leaders of the Holy See. It will be an important event for Belarusian Catholics and for Belarus but may raise concerns of those who will regard the visit as a tacit support for the "Europe's last dictatorship".