Malaysia Muslim PM Najib Razak to meet Pope
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is visiting Italy and is scheduled to meet the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict.
Malaysian and Vatican officials have been in talks for years intended to establish diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The timing of Mr Najib's visit is said to be intended to reassure Christians in his Muslim-majority nation.
Ethnic and religious tensions have risen ahead of expected national polls.
The visit to the Pope's summer home near Rome is significant for Malaysia's Christian community, which makes up about 9% of the population.
A string of religious disputes in recent years has raised fears among the country's religious minorities that their rights are being eroded, says the BBC's Kuala Lumpur correspondent Jennifer Pak.
In 2009 the authorities tried to enforce a ban on the use of the word "Allah" by Christians when referring to God in the Malay language.
But the efforts heightened tensions, leading to arson attacks on churches and tit-for-tat defacing of mosques, through such means as leaving pigs' heads at doorways to Islamic prayer halls.
Ramon Navaratnam, who works for a Malaysian inter-faith council, said forming ties with the Vatican would give the concerns of Christians a better hearing.
'We now will be saying things the way we have, what is right, what is wrong, what we like, what we don't like about religious freedoms or the lack of it, and we know we will have somebody in the Vatican who would be able to at least talk to them, the government, privately and say look, we can't accept this. Please moderate your views," he said.
Mr Navaratnam said the government could no longer ignore religious minorities, who are ethnically Chinese and Indian.
However, some Malay Muslim groups have become more vocal in demanding privileges and support from the government.
In 2008, Chinese and Indian minorities across Malaysia, who are mainly Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, abandoned the government and voted for the opposition.
Many complained of racism and a lack of religious freedom.