Robert Mugabe will be among a host of dignitaries attending this weekend's beatification ceremony for the late Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, a week after slamming Catholic priests for being "puppets of the West."
A beatification ceremony is a formal recognition by the Catholic Church, which is part of four steps towards religious sainthood. The Vatican has confirmed that Mugabe will attend the ceremony on Sunday, insisting the two states have "diplomatic relations."
"Zimbabwe is a state with which the Holy See has diplomatic relations. There is therefore nothing to hide," said Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi on Friday.
The Vatican is a sovereign state and is not part of the European Union (EU), which maintains targeted, restrictive measures against Mugabe and his cronies for, among other things, serious human rights violations. But Mugabe will still be traveling through Rome to get to Vatican City.
Travel restrictions aside, observers have expressed shock that Mugabe was invited to the heart of Catholicism, despite recently slamming Catholic Bishops as "liars," and "puppets of the West."
Last week Thursday Mugabe, who is Catholic, addressed members of the Zion Christian Church and said he had lost confidence in his church's Bishops.
"Often Catholic bishops expose that they are not their own men; they are mere puppets of Western Countries. I grew up in a Catholic Church but now I am totally frustrated by how these so called men of God who lie. All Catholic bishops are liars, they demonise my party every day," fumed Mugabe.
He added: "I observed how they operate and my conclusion is that almost three quarters of them who are whites feed people with lies."
Mugabe has previously travelled to Rome despite travel bans, and in 2005 attended John Paul II's funeral. He then returned to Rome in 2008, travelling under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), for a summit of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Mugabe's attendance at the Vatican comes after his Ambassador to the UK, Gabriel Machinga, was invited to the Royal Wedding on Friday, a move that has angered many campaigners for a democratic Zimbabwe. Some commentators have criticized what they say is Western hypocrisy, inviting despots or their representatives to different events, while hiding behind 'protocol' as an excuse.
Meanwhile, the beatification ceremony on Sunday will see twenty-two world leaders converge on the Vatican. A total of 87 international delegations are set to attend and the leaders will include 16 heads of state and six government leaders.