Summarising the results of the President’s visit to the Vatican and Italy.
President Lukashenko’s official visit to Western Europe and the Vatican has been of symbolic significance. The 265th Pope (formally, the absolute monarch of his state) has less than one thousand subjects, but over a billion Catholics worldwide revere him as their spiritual leader. Catholicism has existed in Belarus since the 14th century and, today, around 14 per cent of those living in the Republic are Catholic. The Head of State’s audience with the Apostolic Palace is good news not only for our Catholics; it is an important element of relations with the West.
Looking at all the former Soviet states, Lithuania boasts more Catholics than Belarus. However, the Belarusian law ‘On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations’ recognises the spiritual, cultural and historical role of the Roman Catholic Church.
Catholicism is one of the main confessions in Belarus, with its empowerment connected to the Society of Jesus. In the 16th century, the Society opened free schools in Polotsk, Minsk, Vitebsk, Mogilev and other Belarusian cities. Mikołaj Hussowczyk of Belarus’ famous poem ‘The Song of the Bison: its Stature, Ferocity and Hunt’ was blessed by Pope Leo X.
There are 464 Catholic parishes in Belarus; after the collapse of the USSR, their number increased fourfold. Almost every parish has its own church — there are 451 countrywide, with 35 being built. Over the past twenty years, around 300 Roman Catholic churches have been revived. Three years ago, according to the Decree of the President of Belarus, the Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity (St. Roch Church) opened for worship; it was a concert hall before. The state provides material support for the reconstruction of buildings and for their interiors — such as the beautiful frescoes in the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin.
However, some problems exist. For example, there are too few Belarusian priests. Although there are 407 priests working in the Republic, around 40 per cent are foreign citizens — mainly Poles. Ecclesiastical seminaries (in Grodno and Pinsk) are producing more graduates, so the issue should gradually resolve…
Mr. Lukashenko’s visit to Monte-Vaticano was friendly (Monte-Vaticano is one of the Roman hills, accommodating St. Peter’s Basilica and Square — footworn by millions of tourists, the world-famous Sistine Chapel, the Apostolic Palace and other, lesser known Vatican buildings).
Of course, the Vatican is an independent state with its own government, embassies-nunciatures around the world, Internet site, postage stamps and, even, a fuel station. In fact, it’s the smallest state on the planet — just half a square kilometre in size. The President’s plane landed at ‘Ciampino’ military airport, where Italian Carabinieri escorted the President’s limousine to St. Peter’s Square. Once the Swiss guard took over, Mr. Lukashenko’s visit to the Vatican officially began.
Five centuries ago, Europe was tortured by endless wars — including those inspired by religious motives. The Pope needed security and chose Swiss soldiers to protect him; since then, their functions have been extended (although they still protect the Holy Table). Their bright yellow and blue uniform attracts tourists, who are keen to chat to them and take photos. One asks me, “Where are you from? Belarus? Oh, you must like ice-hockey. I liked the way your team played!” Clearly, I’m not the first Belarusian to meet them.
The first audience between the Belarusian President and the Pontifex has been under preparation for some time. According to Mr. Lukashenko, the former Pope invited him twice and he regrets having missed his chance.
The Vatican’s Secretary of State (second in command at the Vatican) — His Holiness Tarcisio Bertone — visited Belarus last year. This signalled a new level of relations between Minsk and the Apostolic capital. Cardinal Bertone spent two days in Minsk, testifying to his great plans for co-operation.
Italian newspapers, having a good grasp of Vatican protocol, underline that the Pope spoke to the Belarusian President for a longer period of time than he spent with Prince Charles. The Prince of Wales passed by Belarusian journalists, waiting along the same route as that to be taken by Mr. Lukashenko. He passed through 11 halls of the Apostolic Palace, decorated with masterpieces by Raffaello, Michelangelo and other great painters, through the Vatican Library, where Benedict XVI accepts guests.
Journalists were not present at the meeting of the President and Pontifex but witnessed their greeting and farewell. At the beginning, Mr. Lukashenko mentioned the delayed meeting, saying, “If you have time, Godwilling, you are welcome to visit Belarus.” Alexander Lukashenko visited Benedict XVI with his younger son, who presented the Pope with a gift of an ABC book; the Pope declared himself touched.
A visit by the Pope would have huge spiritual significance for Belarusian Catholics. Belarus’ Foreign Minister, Sergey Martynov, notes the political significance of the President’s visit to the Vatican — and Italy — saying, “It opens a new window of possibilities. We are interested in Belarus becoming an integral part of a larger Europe. We are keen to see a united Europe, undivided by borders between the West and East. It should be a single home for everyone.”
Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, Metropolitan of Minsk and Mogilev, notes, “Europe would be incomplete without Belarus — the doorway to the East. The Pope is also referred to as the Pontifex (from the word ‘pontis’ — meaning bridge). Belarus is a bridge between Eastern (Byzantine) Christianity and Latin Christianity. Our partnership is logical and beneficial, ever developing. We all know how powerful the Vatican is. The meeting is undoubtedly important, bringing integration and ecumenical liaisons between Orthodox Christians and Catholics. I’m glad that this visit took place and I think it will bear good fruit for Belarus, the Catholic Church and our relations with the European Union.”
President Lukashenko’s visit to Rome was of global significance. He aims to arrange a meeting between the Pope and the Filaret in Belarus. However, unsettled issues between the two churches continue to hinder this meeting. Metropolitan Kondrusiewicz, who came to Minsk from Moscow and knows of the issue firsthand, believes the President’s invitation could open a new page in relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Mutual understanding would be beneficial.
On the evening of his visit, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi hosted a working dinner for Mr. Lukashenko at Chigi Palace (where Chigi bankers once lived and where the Italian Council of Ministers is now situated). The two men are united by a shared career path, having both come to power in 1994. In 2003, they chatted at St. Petersburg’s 300th anniversary celebrations — where Russia had invited all global leaders. This time, talks lasted over three hours (instead of the planned one). They parted after midnight.
All the Italian newspapers have reported on the President’s visit to Rome. One central publication — ‘Corriere della Sera’ — printed an open letter from the Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, speaking of Belarus’ developing relations with Italy and the EU.
Minsk clearly desires improved relations with every Western capital but Rome stands apart. Belarusian-Italian co-operation confirms that Belarusian interest in Europe goes beyond economic projects. Italian journalists failed to note that Mr. Lukashenko had arrived in the Apennines on the anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe. Italy accepts more Belarusian children for recuperation than any other country. Last year, around 20000 children gathered their strength while staying with Italian families.
The President expressed his appreciation to his colleague. Political and economic issues were the main focus but Mr. Berlusconi asked for a report on promising investment offers to pass on to Italian businessmen. According to ‘Forbes’, he is one of the richest people in Italy.
In 2008, Italy was among the top ten Belarusian trading partners. Trade turnover reached 1.2 billion US Dollars (up 45 per cent on 2007). Exports rose 74 per cent to reach an impressive 320.5 million US Dollars.
From January–February 2009, exports of goods stood at 19 million US Dollars — half that of 2008. The global economic crisis has resulted in falling demand for Belarusian metals and metal products in Italy (the main export). The President’s visit to Italy should reverse this trend to some extent.
Dialogue with Italy should be considered in the context of relations with the EU. According to the President, our country is interested in further developing dialogue between Belarus and the EU. We insist on simplifying the visa regime (and reducing fees) for Belarusians. In turn, we offer beneficial co-operation in the sphere of investments, with promising projects in industry, the energy sphere and banking. We strive to use our transit potential profitably and are interested in co-operation in the humanitarian and scientific spheres. Belarus is also learning from the experience of European law making.
Prime Minister Berlusconi visited Warsaw after his meeting with the President and announced that Europe should seize the moment to realise reform in Belarus. The foundations have been laid in Rome.
On April 28th, the Belarusian President met Sir Matthew Festing, the Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta — which has given much assistance to Belarus in overcoming the consequences of the nuclear accident.
The Malthusian Order maintains diplomatic relations with 100 states. In 2004, it opened its embassy in Belarus — the first in the CIS. Curiously enough, the Order first came to Belarus in the late 14th century. Since the mid-1990s, the Malthusian Order has been actively engaged in charity work in Belarus, giving humanitarian aid to various medical institutions. Since 2002, it has been co-operating with Belarus in offering internships to Belarusian doctors at Belgian academic clinics. Assistance has also been given to orphanages in the Minsk Region.
Addressing Sir Matthew Festing, Mr. Lukashenko expressed his appreciation to the Order on behalf of the Belarusian people for its comprehensive humanitarian mission.
The Master underlined that multinational and multi-confessional Belarus is an outstanding example of peaceful co-existence and fruitful co-operation between representatives of different nations and religious groups. Certainly, this is a great achievement of the Belarusian nation and its government. Sir Festing mentions the traditionally close contacts of partners within the CIS, which bring Belarus good relations with the Islamic world, alongside its growing openness towards the EU. The Malthusian Order supports such a policy, keen to see relations improve between the Republic of Belarus and its western neighbours. Practical steps are being undertaken in this direction and, undoubtedly, both parties will benefit.
The President shares his impressions of his visit to Rome.
On the meeting the Pope. “I noted during our meeting that we have a unique chance today to bring our positions closer — for the Pope and the Patriarch to meet and discuss common problems. If this meeting takes place, we hope it will happen in Belarus, since it’s not only the centre of Europe, but also a country where two confessions — Orthodox and Catholic — exist side by side… I saw his interest. He told me that God might soon open this door and a meeting could be arranged.”
According to the President, we could hold this meeting in Moscow or in Rome. However, Belarus, a holy place, would be ideal for such a meeting because there is no animosity between Catholics and Orthodox Christians; people live in peace and harmony.
At the same time, Mr. Lukashenko announced that this offer shouldn’t be considered a political step. “It’s not about politics! If the meeting doesn’t take place, I and my policy won’t be affected. It will be bad for our nations, as well as for Catholics and Orthodox Christians. They have many questions to discuss and wish to look at each other directly, not through a fence of problems. Problems should be solved at a common table.”
On negotiations with Silvio Berlusconi. Mr. Lukashenko notes that Mr. Berlusconi is ready to visit Belarus in the near future to continue dialogue. The visit may take place in autumn. According to the President, he and the Prime Minister discussed many topical issues, including the influence of the global financial crisis on their economies, investment co-operation and the Russia-Georgia conflict.
Asked by Italian journalists which reforms Belarus is being recommended to take by leaders of Western European states, Mr. Lukashenko stressed, “We are well aware ourselves, without anyone’s advice, what to do and in what direction reform must take in our public, political and economic life.”
On the recuperation and adoption of Belarusian children in Italy. Mr. Lukashenko stressed that Belarusians would be happy to see worthy Italian families adopting children and welcoming them for recuperative visits. “There are no problems today with adoption,” he announced. “What problems could there be? We’re enforcing stricter adoption legislation. Also, we want each adopted child to feel like a normal citizen — the Education Minister oversees this. Three dozen children are now ready for adoption, with Italian families happy to welcome them.” He added that ‘Tarcisio Bertone has guaranteed, by the authority of the entire Catholic church, that children will be worthily supported.’