MINSK (Reuters) - President Alexander Lukashenko proposed ex-Soviet Belarus as an “ideal” place for an historic meeting to smooth out longstanding differences between the pope and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Lukashenko, in an interview with Reuters, said he was convinced after meeting both Pope Benedict and newly enthroned Russian Patriarch Kirill he could help host such talks.
He cited what he said was longstanding tolerance between the two faiths in his country as a key factor in facilitating a meeting after centuries of mistrust, made even more acute by the fall of communism.
The Orthodox faith dominates in Belarus, but Catholics account for about 14 percent of 10 million residents.
“Belarus is a holy place because there are no differences between Orthodox and Catholics. People live here in peace and harmony according to church teachings. And that is what I said to the patriarch and the pope,” he said.
“Neither of them is against this. But you do need the right conditions ... This would be the ideal place for a meeting. And if it doesn’t happen while I am here, perhaps it will take place after I’m gone. But at least let it take place in this holy, illuminated place.”
Whether such a meeting will happen at all is unclear.
Benedict’s predecessor John Paul II had long dreamed of an ecclesiastical summit to end differences between the two churches stemming from the “Great Schism” of 1054.
But he met resistance from then-patriarch Alexiy II, who accused Catholics of “poaching” Orthodox parishes, particularly in post-Soviet Ukraine.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s new head of external relations, Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, told Reuters last week in an interview issues remained between the two churches and said he did not envisage a pope-patriarch meeting this year.
Lukashenko, previously accused of crushing human rights in his former Soviet republic, has overseen an improvement in ties with the West and last week visited Rome and the Vatican -- his first official trip to a Western country since the mid-1990s.
He invited the pope to Belarus last year after a visit to Minsk by the Vatican’s secretary of state, but it is unclear for now when the pontiff might come.
In his comments to Reuters, the president denied his efforts to help stage a meeting between the spiritual leaders were aimed at boosting his own standing.
“For goodness sake, there is no politics here!” he said.
He described Russian Patriarch Kirill, viewed by analysts as more open to the West than his predecessor, as “an enlightened, surprising man, young and energetic. You can speak to him about anything.”
Lukashenko once described himself as an “Orthodox atheist,” but in his latest comments rejected that label and said he makes regular visits to church.
“I do go to church. And what of it? I’ve gone to church from the first day I took office. And not because I became a believer straight away or am a believer now,” he said. “I go to church because my people are there.”
Editing by Sophie Hares
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