Pope Francis praises Gorbachev as far-sighted statesman

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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Wednesday praised the late Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as a far-sighted statesman who was committed to improving relations among nations.

Francis sent a message to Irina, Gorbachev's daughter, saying he was "spiritually close in his moment of pain". Francis called her father an "esteemed statesman".

In the message, released by the Vatican, Francis said he was grateful for Gorbachev's "far-sighted commitment to concord and fraternity among peoples as well as to progress for his own country at a time of important changes".

Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday aged 91, travelled to the Vatican in December, 1989, to hold a historic meeting with Pope John Paul II.

That meeting, the first between a pope and a Soviet leader, came at the end of a tumultuous year that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the countries of Eastern Europe, including John Paul's Poland, begin to break away from Moscow's grip.

Nearly all former Soviet Republics, including Russia, now have diplomatic relations with the Vatican, as do Eastern European countries that were once part of the Warsaw Pact.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by David Gregorio)