Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived in Rome on Saturday for talks with government officials and Pope Francis, who in late April said that the Vatican is involved in a peace mission to end the war with Russia.
Zelensky, on his first trip to Italy since Russia invaded in February last year, is due to meet separately with President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni before heading to the Vatican. He is also expected to be the guest of a popular Italian television talk show before heading to Germany.
Meloni visited Zelensky in Kyiv in February to assure him of Italy's continued support for Ukraine, despite some of her allies, most notably former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, having longstanding, close ties with Moscow.
The meeting with the pope is expected to be the most significant part of Zelensky's time in Italy. He previously met the pope at the Vatican in 2020 and the two have had several phone conversations since the war began.
The pope's role in the Russia-Ukraine war
At the start of the war, the pope tried to take a balanced approach in hopes of being a mediator but later began forcefully condemning Russia actions, comparing them to some of the worst crimes against Ukraine during the Soviet era.
Returning from a trip to Hungary on April 30, Francis made an intriguing but puzzling comment about the Vatican being involved in a mission to try to end the war. "There is a mission in course now but it is not yet public. When it is public, I will reveal it," he told reporters during his flight home.
Both Moscow and Kyiv publicly expressed surprise at his comments. The Vatican has insisted that something is in the works but has offered no details.
Francis met this week with Russia's outgoing ambassador to the Vatican, Alexander Avdeyev, and the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero reported that the Vatican may have given the envoy a letter for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Francis has pleaded for peace practically on a weekly basis, and has repeatedly expressed a wish to act as a broker between Kyiv and Moscow. His offer has so far failed to produce any breakthrough.
The pope has a standing invitation from Zelensky to visit Kyiv but the pope has said previously that he also wants to visit Moscow as part of the same peace mission.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal met the pope at the Vatican on April 27 and said he had discussed a "peace formula" put forward by Zelensky.
Zelensky and his team have been vigorously promoting Kyiv's 10-point peace plan and urging world leaders to hold a Global Peace Summit based on the proposals.
It calls for restoring Ukraine's territorial integrity, the withdrawal of Russian troops and cessation of hostilities, and the restoration of Ukraine’s state borders. Zelensky has repeatedly said the plan is not open to negotiations.
The pope has said the Vatican is willing to do "all that is humanly possible" to help the repatriation of Ukrainian children. Kyiv estimates nearly 19,500 children have been taken to Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea since February 2022, in what it condemns as illegal deportations.
Message of support from Italy
Italy is fully supporting Ukraine in its resistance against Russia's invasion, the Italian head of state said in welcoming Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy to his residence in Rome on Saturday.
"It is an honor to have you here in Rome," President Sergio Mattarella told Zelenskiy, in remarks aired on Italian television.
"I asked to meet you again after our conversation of years ago, although in this different condition, we are fully at your side," Mattarella said.