South African President Thabo Mbeki begins a two-day visit to Italy Friday which will take him to Rome and Venice. In Rome, he will meet with the new Pope and Italian leaders. In Venice he will address the European, Middle East and Africa CEO meeting.

South African President Thabo Mbeki's visit to Italy will be focused on improving relations with Italy, discussing development issues with the Catholic Church and investment-related issues at an international business summit. He will be accompanied by Trade and Industry Minister Mandisi Mpahlwa.

The two-day visit begins at the Vatican where Pope Benedict the Sixteenth will receive President Mbeki in the apostolic palace. The South African Ambassador to Rome, Lenin Schope, says this will be a courtesy visit.

"It will be a first encounter. When the pope was inaugurated one of the issues that he addressed in his speech was precisely the issue of development and so on," Ambassador Schope said. "The president will want to have a brief interaction with him on that issue."

President Mbeki, who will also be received by the Vatican's Secretary of State,Cardinal Angelo Sodano, is expected to reaffirm the important role of the church in the fight against poverty and underdevelopment.

On Friday, the South African president will also meet in Rome with his Italian counterpart Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Talks will focus on strengthening economic and political relations, European support for Africa, peacekeeping and the management of conflicts in Africa.

Some discussion is also expected on the upcoming G-8 summit in Britain in July and the reform of the United Nations. Mr. Mbeki will then travel to Venice where he will address the European, Middle East and Africa CEO Summit, attended by leading financial experts and managers.

Ambassador Schope said the president was invited to attend the summit by the U.S. investment bank Morgan Stanley.

"The main thrust of that will be basically to talk to the investment community, to address possible concerns relating to investment, to address different misconceptions about investment, rates of return and so on but also we believe that the president will take the opportunity to address issues related to the sustainable financing of African development," Ambassador Schope said.

Ambassador Schope said the South African president is expected to return to Italy for an official state visit in the first months of 2006.