The Pope's unholy alliance with the dictator

Alexander Lukashenko, still president of Belarus thanks to a rigged election, has found an ally in the Vatican

Nick Cohen

The Observer,

Scandal is too mild a term to describe the abuse of children at the hands Roman Catholic priests. But whatever word you fix on - "atrocity", "obscenity", I can't find the right one - you cannot doubt that rape was all about power, as the feminists of the 1970s once said. The power of the old to groom and force themselves on the young was complemented by the power of the Vatican to protect rapists from justice and cover up their crimes.

If the church believed its own doctrine, one might have expected the papacy to show a smidgen of contrition and to seek repentance. After presiding as Cardinal Ratzinger over a parallel justice system in which there was one law for his church and another for everyone else, however, Pope Benedict XVI is showing that he will forgive his own sins but learn nothing from them.

It is not too hyperbolic to say that the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko is raping Belarus. From the moment crowds gathered in Minsk to protest about last month's rigged elections, secret policemen have been forcing themselves on their victims. They have arrested and assaulted hundreds, jailed seven of the nine opposition candidates for the presidency and beaten unconscious one of them, Vladimir Neklyayev, as they dragged him from a hospital where he might have found sanctuary.

In a tribute to the tactics of the communists, Lukashenko is threatening to send the children of dissidents to orphanages - his own form of child abuse. After the authorities tried to pick up Danil Sannikov, the three-year-old son of the jailed opposition leader Andrei Sannikov, a local political analyst explained that "by using children they are able to get their opponents to confess, to capitulate politically, to appear on state television and make a repentant speech".

Or as the boy's grandmother put it as she clung to the child: "The terrible Stalinist times are returning to Belarus. I can't believe that this is really happening."

Naturally, those members of the Belarussian opposition still at liberty have appealed for outsiders to condemn the regime. It is their last card. Russia keeps the tyranny economically secure because Putin wants Belarus as a buffer state and no more cares about the sufferings of its people than China cares about the sufferings of the people of North Korea.

Europe is all they have, and although it is easy to criticise Baroness Ashton, the British politician hardly anyone in Britain had heard of until a game of musical chairs in Brussels ended with her in the seat of the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, I have to say that she is behaving honourably. She met the Sannikov family and promised to do what she could to secure the release of political prisoners. Her office hints strongly to me that she will try to persuade European governments to impose travel bans on Lukashenko and his goons at the end of month.

The opposition has its enemies in Europe. The correspondent for the New Statesman, which excused the mass murders of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, out-Stalinised his Stalinist predecessors when he cited as a reason for readers to give the dictatorship the benefit of the doubt his visit to "one of the country's industrial gems - the enormous Belarussian Autoworks (BelAZ) factory: [It] employs 12,000 people and is the biggest producer of mining dump trucks in the world". Beyond the tyrannophile left with its perennial reverence for truck production quotas, however, the dissidents' main problem is the indifference of Europe rather than its enmity.

So it was with a little hope that opposition leaders asked to meet Archbishop Martin Vidovic, the papal nuncio in Belarus. They carried a letter to the Pope, which said: "Today Belarus is enshrouded in darkness. Arrests of activists, raids and pogroms at independent websites and newspaper offices, searches of apartments continue. The authorities are blackmailing the political prisoners using their little children. We are seeking your help." The nuncio refused to meet them. Later he relented, but Ratzinger has not protested against the oppression or promised to break diplomatic relations with the outlaw state.

The Vatican that still claims to be a force for good is staying silent because it is seeking a concordat with a state that still has a KGB and statues of Lenin on its streets, just as it sought accommodation with Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

The advantages for the papacy are hard to judge, because the terms of concordats are secret, but we can assume it wants what it has always wanted: public money and control of children's schooling. The advantages for Lukashenko are easier to grasp.

It is an error to suppose that dictators do not need to worry about public opinion. At a minimum, they want to secure the passive acquiescence of the subject population and to demoralise their opponents. In return for agreeing to cut a deal with Rome, a grateful Lukashenko has heard Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, do both.

The absurd cardinal praised Belarus for allowing "freedom of religion", and denounced sanctions against the regime as "unacceptable". Belarus has a large Catholic minority and the Pope has cold-bloodedly sought to legitimise the dictator in its eyes, not just with his political interventions, but also by inviting Lukashenko to an audience at the Vatican.

Last year, I met Natalia Koliada, founder of the Belarus Free Theatre, a centre of intellectual dissent to Lukashenko. She was fizzing then; filled with the hope that maybe life in her country was about to get better. Last week when I phoned her, the formerly dynamic woman was too depressed to talk.

While it was in London, the Free Theatre showed a video of Numbers, a brilliant absurdist play which you can find on the Index on Censorship website . The actors mime surreal routines while a camera projects on to a wall behind them statistics that enumerate the scale of prostitution, poverty and sickness in Belarus. At the end, a list of famous names fills the screen - Marc Chagall, Isaac Asimov, Kirk Douglas: people we would or should know about, who had been born in Belarus or into exiled families.

For a moment, I was puzzled and then realised that the actors were trying to say that Belarus was a part of the western world and we should fight for it. The spectacle of the Pope, Europe's last absolute ruler, cutting deals with Lukashenko, Europe's last dictator, shows that the fight must also be fought on the home front.


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