A top Vatican official has praised freedom of religion in Belarus.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state, is in Minsk on a five-day visit that will include talks with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Lukashenka has invited Pope Benedict to visit Belarus.
Bertone is the first senior Vatican official to visit the country, known as the "last dictatorship in Europe." Roman Catholics officially make up some 14 percent of Belarus' 10 million people.
Bertone met with the head of Belarus's Orthodox Church. He said his talks had been "positive in terms of a mutual exchange. This visit underscores an atmosphere of cooperation between two faiths."
Later, he is quoted as telling the head of the State Committee on Religious Affairs: "I have come to express my gratitude for the way freedom of religion is being upheld in Belarus."
The U.S. State Department has been critical of Belarus' efforts to restrict freedom of religion. In its 2007 rights report, the State Department said religious leaders in Belarus had been "fined, imprisoned or deported for performing services, and churches were either closed, deregistered, or had their congregations evicted. "