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Zelensky to meet Pope Francis at Vatican for first time during Ukraine war

ROME — Pope Francis emphasized the importance of protecting “innocent victims of the conflict” in Ukraine in a private meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the Vatican on Saturday, the Vatican said in a news release.

The statement provided few details about the 40-minute tête-à-tête, the first between the two since Russia’s invasion.

“I’m grateful for his personal attention to the tragedy of millions of Ukrainians,” Zelensky said in a statement.

But he provided a starkly different accounting of the conversation’s key points, saying that he had spoken to the pope about Ukrainian children forcibly deported to Russia, and had asked the pontiff to condemn alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine, “because there can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor.”

Zelensky said he also pushed Ukraine’s peace formula “as the only effective algorithm for achieving a just peace” and called on the Vatican to back it.

The Ukrainian leader is in Europe rallying allies this weekend ahead of a planned counteroffensive on the battlefield, visiting Italy’s political leaders on Saturday before an expected stop in Berlin on Sunday.

Zelensky kicked off the trip with a meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella, who reiterated his country’s “full support for Ukraine in terms of military, financial, humanitarian and reconstruction aid, in the short and long term,” according to a source in the presidential office, who spoke anonymously to describe a private conversation.

A video posted to Zelensky’s Telegram channel showed the president, who was visibly emotional, standing alongside Mattarella, 81, outside of the Quirinale presidential palace on an overcast day in Rome, his hand over his heart as an Italian military band played the Ukrainian national anthem.

In a statement accompanying the video, Zelensky expressed gratitude for the support Italy has provided to date, adding, “The key to our success on the battlefield is receiving needed assistance in a timely manner.”

But the key to making that happen lies primarily with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. In Italy, the president plays a largely ceremonial role — though with the power to call new elections or pick prime ministers — while the government, led by the prime minister, appropriates military aid.

Meloni, who visited Kyiv in February, has remained a staunch supporter of Ukraine, even as her far-right ruling coalition is divided on the issue and polls show a plurality of Italians are against sending weapons to Ukraine. Italy has provided six military aid packages to Ukraine since the start of the conflict, and, along with France, pledged advanced air-defense systems to Kyiv.

Meloni was displeased after she was left out of a February meeting between Zelensky, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Paris. But at a news conference on Saturday, she said Zelensky’s visit was an acknowledgment of Italy’s role as “a key player of a shared future of wealth.”

“We reiterated our 360-degree support to Ukraine for all the time that will be required, and longer,” she said. “We’ll get to peace only if and when Russia will stop.”

Meloni also emphasized Italy’s support for Ukraine’s accession to the European Union — and reconstruction was a prominent theme of her remarks. In late April, Meloni convened executives from hundreds of Italian and Ukrainian companies in Rome to discuss rebuilding after the war.

Zelensky thanked Meloni for her support and said the two had a “very fruitful” conversation. Russia doesn’t want peace, Zelensky said. “But we do, and so do our partners,” he added. “I can see that in Italy.”

While Ukraine is looking for sustained military support from Meloni and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the ask of the pope, was less concrete. Photos published by the official Vatican Media showed Zelensky seated across a wooden desk from the pontiff during their private audience on Saturday afternoon.

Francis conveyed his “constant prayers” for peace, the Vatican statement said.

Francis has frequently called for an end to the war since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, voicing solidarity with Ukrainians and recognizing their suffering. In August, he warned that fighting around Zaporizhzhia could lead to “nuclear disaster.”

Recently, the pope appeared to cast himself in the role of peacemaker. He told reporters in late April that there was “a mission going on now” to reach a peace deal, “but it is not public yet,” adding, “when it is public I will talk about it.”

The remarks appeared to take Moscow and Kyiv by surprise, with both governments denying they knew about the effort.

Some analysts question whether there is a viable mediator role for the Vatican in a part of the world dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Francis has appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin for a meeting — so far, to no avail.

And although the pope has sharpened his rhetoric during the course of the war, Ukrainians have at times accused Francis of creating false equivalencies.

The pope faced blowback in the first months after the invasion for not calling out Putin as the aggressor, while criticizing Western sanctions and defense spending. In an interview with an Italian newspaper a year ago, he appeared to echo a Kremlin talking point, describing the “barking of NATO at Russia’s door.”

In August, when a car bomb in a Moscow suburb killed Darya Dugina, a pro-war commentator and daughter of a prominent ultranationalist, Francis referred to her as an innocent victim of war — a comment that drew ire from Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See.

Andrii Yurash, the ambassador, called the pope’s remarks “disappointing,” adding, “can’t speak in same categories about aggressor and victim, rapist and raped.”

Francis adopted a harder line in more recent months. In October, he appealed to Putin to “stop this spiral of violence and death.” In November, he compared the plight of Ukrainians with the “genocide artificially caused by Stalin” in the 1930s, when a Soviet-engineered famine in Ukraine contributed to the death of more than 3 million people. Francis called for prayers for Ukrainian civilians “who today are suffering the martyrdom of aggression.”

Marco Politi, a Francis biographer, said the pope has expressed “unambiguous” solidarity with Ukrainians and condemnation of the war. “But at the same time, the pope has a global vision that stems from the Vatican diplomatic tradition,” he said.

“The pope believes that this is no longer a Russian-Ukrainian war,” he added, but rather “a hybrid war between NATO and Russia — while of course keeping in mind that Putin is responsible.”

For Francis, the war complicates a project that has formed a cornerstone of his papacy: reconciling the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, which split nearly 1,000 years ago. In 2016, Francis met with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, in Cuba as part of a rapprochement driven by shared concerns over violence against Christians in the Middle East.

But during the war in Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox leader has promoted theological justifications for Putin’s actions. In a Zoom call last May, Francis warned Kirill against becoming “Putin’s altar boy.”

Yurash, the Ukrainian ambassador, said the Vatican has consistently said it wishes to be involved in any peace negotiation, part of why the pope wanted to keep “bridges” and “lines” open to Russia, the New York Times reported.

The pope has previously called on Zelensky to “be open” to serious peace proposals.

Francis, meanwhile, believes a “new Helsinki” represents the best resolution to the conflict, Politi said, referring to the 1975 Helsinki Accords, signed by Western countries and the Soviet Union in a bid to de-escalate Cold War tensions in Europe and recognize the post-World War II status quo on the continent.

“I think that the Vatican is aware that it doesn’t have the power to impose any mediation” between Russia and Ukraine, Politi said. “It never had that in the past, and it doesn’t have it today. The Vatican makes itself available, should key players want to make use of the Vatican channel.”

After Rome, Zelensky is slated to visit Germany, the German Press Agency reported, citing official sources. Uncertainty had surrounded plans for the visit, after details of Zelensky’s itinerary were leaked to the press, sparking fury in Kyiv and nearly scuttling the trip.

On Saturday, Berlin announced a $3 billion military aid package for Ukraine — its largest since Russia’s full-scale invasion last year.

Parker reported from Washington. Loveday Morris in Berlin contributed to this report.


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