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EU Parliamentarian Criticizes Zimbabwean President's Trip to Vatican City

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has flown to Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul, despite a travel ban imposed by the European Union. The state-run Herald newspaper reports Mr. Mugabe left late Wednesday to attend the ceremony alongside dozens of other world leaders on Friday. EU officials imposed the ban on Mr. Mugabe and more than 90 other top officials after widespread reports of vote tampering in 2002 presidential elections. Still, Zimbabwe's president has attended key summits since then in Europe and elsewhere.

On Monday, President Mugabe, who is Catholic, attended a mass in Harare to mourn the pope. State media quoted him saying he fondly remembers John Paul's visit to Zimbabwe during a 1988 tour of African states. The Vatican, a sovereign state, is not a member of the EU and has no airport, but EU member Italy should normally comply with the travel ban imposed on Mugabe. However, under a 1929 pact between Italy and the Vatican, Italian authorities agreed not to stop visitors to the world's smallest state.

According to the South African press, one of Mr. Mugabe’s foremost domestic critics, Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube, responded to the news of the president’s trip by calling him “shameless.” He’s also quoted as saying “that man will use any opportunity to fly to Europe to promote himself.”

Also critical is Michael Gahler, a member of the European Parliament who often deals with Zimbabwe. He’s the vice president of the EU’s development committee, and a member of its subcommittee on human rights. He also observed parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe five years ago, and was part of a mission to the country after the contested results of Zimbabwe’s presidential polls in 2002.

He told English to Africa reporter William Eagle that the EU would likely register a formal complaint with Italy next week for issuing President Mugabe an entry visa. Mr. Gahler also complains that some EU members are reluctant to crack down on Zimbabwe out of fear the EU will also crack down on governments in their own historical sphere of influence in Africa. “[Robert Mugabe] has blood on his hands,” says Mr. Gahler, “and it’s almost blasphemic that such a guy attend the funeral of the Pope in Rome. [It would be better for him to be] excommunicated than to be let in to attend the Pope’s funeral.”