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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lukashenko Invites Pope to Visit Minsk

APNikolai Lukashenko, son of the Belarussian president, left, presenting the pope with a book Monday in the Vatican.
VATICAN CITY -- Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko on Monday met Pope Benedict on a trip to Italy that ends more than a decade of diplomatic isolation.

Lukashenko, accused by critics of crushing fundamental rights in his country, was also due to meet Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Foreign Minister Franco Frattini for a working dinner on Monday night.

A Vatican statement made an indirect reference to the situation of democracy and human rights in Belarus, saying the pope and other Vatican officials spoke to Lukashenko about "certain internal problems of the country."

Lukashenko invited the pope to visit Belarus, telling the pontiff at the end of his 25-minute meeting, "Your Holiness, we hope to receive you on Belarussian soil, God willing."

Lukashenko's 5-year-old son, Nikolai, gave the pope his ABCs book from school.

Belarus is about 60 percent Orthodox Christian, and in the past Lukashenko has described himself as an "Orthodox atheist." Belarus' Orthodox Church is an exarchate, or province, of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church. His invitation to the pope to visit Belarus, which is about 14 percent Catholic, is significant because relations between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church have been tense since the Soviet collapse.

The late Pope John Paul was prevented from visiting Russia by opposition from the late Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II on the grounds that Catholics were "poaching" converts. Alexy's successor, Kirill, is seen as more liberal and open to contacts with the Vatican.

Lukashenko's trip to Italy and the Vatican, his first official visit to a Western country since he visited France in 1995, has been marked by controversy. An editorial in Italy's leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera, criticized the Berlusconi government for allowing a man that it called "Europe's last dictator" to break his isolation in Italy.

Frattini responded with a letter to the newspaper on Monday, saying the visit was part of a EU thaw.

Earlier this month, Lukashenko secured an invitation to the EU's May 7 Eastern Partnership summit in Prague. Frattini said in his letter to the newspaper that the visit was intended to help Belarus "take up a gradual path of democratic evolution" and "encourage a progressive nearing of Belarus to Europe and its democratic standards."