First, occasions on which high-ranking state officials travel to Minsk have become extremely rare. In fact, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has failed to host a single senior European official, or pay a formal visit to any country west of Belarus, since November 1996 -- when an openly manipulated and undemocratic constitutional referendum gave him single-handed control over his country.
A jocular observation circulated in Minsk last week that Lukashenka had managed to secure the visit of the Vatican's second-in-command only because both states are ruled autocratically and, as a consequence, are outside the Council of Europe and its rights-guided parameters.
The visit was also extraordinary due to Lukashenka's decision, during his meeting with Cardinal Bertone, to extend an invitation to Pope Benedict XVI to visit Belarus at "any convenient time." The invitation might ultimately prove to be a mere symbolic gesture, but it is obvious that the Belarusian president was eager to exploit Bertone's visit to raise his own political profile by playing up his country's ties to the Vatican.
"Our dialogue has continued for far longer than the past two, three, or five years," Lukashenka was reported as having told Bertone. "We have cooperated with the Roman Catholic Church for many years, we have been in contact for many years; we had a dialogue with the previous pope, who respected and loved our country very much. He signaled this to me more than once."
The Belarusian side was well-prepared for the cardinal's visit. In addition to Lukashenka, Bertone met with Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau; Leanid Hulyaka, the government commissioner for religious affairs; and Metropolitan Filaret, head of the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Bertone was also invited to lead a Mass in a Minsk cathedral and consecrate a new Roman Catholic church, the first to be built in the capital since 1910. The cardinal also visited two provincial cities and met with Roman Catholic bishops. Moreover, several days before Bertone's trip, a Roman Catholic parish in Belarus's Vitsebsk Oblast unveiled a monument to Benedict -- reportedly the first monument to the current pontiff in the world.
In return, Bertone thanked the Belarusian government for "ensuring freedom of religion" in the country and said prospects were "good" for cooperation between the Holy See and Minsk.
Even more welcome to official ears, the cardinal condemned the use of sanctions in international relations. (U.S. economic sanctions are currently in place against a number of Belarusian state-run firms; both Washington and Brussels have extended a travel ban on more than 30 senior Belarusian officials.)
"Each nation is part of the international community," Bertone said at a news conference in Minsk. "I've said repeatedly that sanctions against Cuba, and against other countries -- including Belarus -- are inadmissible because people suffer from them."
Bertone also had kind words for Orthodox believers in Belarus, saying that relations between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in Belarus are "very positive."
Theory v. Practice
In theory, Belarus's 2002 law "On Freedom of Worship and Religious Organizations" doesn't favor any denomination. Its preamble, however, makes distinctions between the five primary religions mentioned.
The law recognizes a "determining role of the Orthodox Church in the historical formation and development of the spiritual, cultural, and state traditions of the Belarusian people." The Roman Catholic Church is credited with a slightly less robust "spiritual, cultural, and historical role." Evangelical Lutheranism, Judaism, and Islam are jointly categorized as "inseparable from the common history of the people of Belarus."
In practice, the denominations not mentioned explicitly in the law -- which are commonly referred to as "nontraditional" -- face serious difficulties in registering their communities in Belarus or organizing houses of prayer and worship.
Relations between Lukashenka's Belarus and the Roman Catholic Church have not always been as rosy as both the president and Bertone might suggest. In the past few years, Belarusian authorities have expelled a number of Roman Catholic priests and nuns, primarily of Polish origin, when their visas expired.
The Roman Catholic Church experienced a renaissance in Belarus in the early 1990s. Belarus has been short of priests ever since, prompting Poland to offer a helping hand. But the Belarusian government is clearly wary of "Polish influence" among the country's Roman Catholics (who include some 400,000 ethnic Poles), and sees to it that priests and nuns lent to Belarus do not exceed their assigned terms.
On the whole, however, the Vatican can be satisfied with how the church is faring in Belarus. There are four Roman Catholic dioceses in the country now, compared to just one in 1989. There are also two seminaries in Belarus training native residents for the priesthood.
Estimates suggest there may be as many as 1.5 million Roman Catholics, and 400 local Catholic communities, among Belarus's 9.7 million residents. (Officially, 80 percent of Belarusians are Orthodox.) There are currently some 40 Roman Catholic churches under construction in the country.
And now comes an invitation for the pope to visit Belarus.
Pope Benedict is not as passionate a pilgrim as his predecessor, John Paul II. But if he fails to respond promptly to the invitation, the reasons may lie beyond any personal preference to stay at home.
The Belarusian Orthodox Exarchate is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. Its head, Patriarch Aleksy II, regularly accuses the Roman Catholic Church of poaching Orthodox believers in Russia and other post-Soviet countries. Russia has never encouraged a papal visit to its territory; even if Benedict were to travel only to Minsk, it might be too close for the taste of the Moscow Patriarchate. (Moscow was clearly displeased by Pope John Paul's visit to Ukraine in 2001.)
The Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church appears acutely aware of Moscow's point of view. "There is no possibility for the pope to visit Belarus, and never will be," Father Alyaksey Shynkevich from the Belarusian Exarchate told journalists during Bertone's visit. "This is the common position of the Russian Orthodox Church. This is not the prerogative of our metropolitan. This is the prerogative of the Holy Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksy and the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church."
So while a papal visit to Belarus seems unlikely, Lukashenka risks nothing in extending such an invitation. If the pontiff fails to accept, the Belarusian leader can always turn to the sour relations between the Vatican and Moscow for a ready explanation.
As for Cardinal Bertone and his words of praise in Minsk, one should remember that common wisdom dictates that while ordinary mortals plan their policies around the nearest election date, the Vatican plans its own policy with an eye to centuries to come. From such a perspective, is Lukashenka's undemocratic behavior actually worth mentioning?