ZIMBABWE – PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe Friday sneaked out for Europe where he was expected to attend the joint canonisation of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II in the Vatican City.
It was not immediately clear if the 90-year-old leader travelled together with his wife Grace, whose visa denial to Brussels early this month reignited the drawn out diplomatic tiff between his government and the European Union.
Sunday’s canonisation of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (Pope John XXIII) and Karol Jozef Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) was expected to be presided over by the incumbent Pope Francis.
Mugabe is expected to join over 40 world leaders at the spacious St Peter’s Square, venue for the Roman Catholic mass.
The Zimbabwean leader was in 2002 slapped with a European travel ban after he led a violent seizure of white owned farmland and a tense poll that claimed over 100 mostly opposition supporters.
His few trips to Europe since then have been linked to the Vatican ceremonies as well as meetings of United Nations agencies.
Outside the Vatican, Mugabe was 2007 in Lisbon, the Portuguese capital for an EU-Africa summit.
His admission to the high profile summit was after fellow African leaders threatened a general boycott of the meeting if one of the continent’s longest serving leaders was barred from the event.
Similar conditions revisited the embattled leader last month and he was begrudgingly issued with a visa to travel to Brussels for the April 2-3 summit.
He was however forced into an embarrassing last minute boycott of the high level meeting when Brussels refused his younger wife a visa.
But unlike the EU summits where the veteran leader has had to sweat to find passage, the Vatican ceremonies have presented lesser headaches for Mugabe, who is also Catholic.
Mugabe, a conservative Catholic, visited Italy previously for the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005 and for ceremonies for his beatification in April 2011.
In each case, Mugabe was permitted to travel through Italy to the Vatican, which, as a separate State, is not subject to the EU ban.
March 2013, Mugabe again slipped to the Vatican to attend Pope Francis’ inauguration.
In attempts to extinguish the storm which followed his controversial invitation last year, the Vatican said it did not issue invitations for the inauguration of Latin America’s first pontiff.
“The Holy See informs everyone that this event is taking place. There are no invitations. There are no privileges and no one is refused. While one country may have problems with someone else, we invite no one. This must be made clear,” a Vatican spokesperson told the media then.
Officially, Vatican City State is a landlocked sovereign city-state whose territory consists of a walled enclave within the city of Rome, Italy. It has an area of approximately 44 hectares, and a population of around 840.
While Mugabe now enjoys the warm hospitality of the Southern Europeans, almost a week ago, and during the independence celebrations, he took moments to bash the Europeans for allegedly imposing sanctions on his country and attempts to smuggle homosexuality into African cultures.