Pope Francis has been known for his support of social justice and refugees in the past, having supported peacemaking and protecting the environment. However, when it has come to the brutal Ukraine war, which began with Russia’s unprovoked invasion in late February, the Vatican has appeared to only take limited steps to advance peace in Ukraine and stand with Ukrainian refugees.
There are now millions of Ukrainians displaced by the war and yet Pope Francis was quoted this week as saying he prefers to go to Moscow before Kyiv. The Pope also said that Mariupol, where Ukrainians still resist despite being surrounded, has been "barbarously bombed and destroyed,” some of the strongest language from the Vatican so far.
However, despite the comments about Mariupol, overall the Pope has appeared more cautious in his approach to Ukraine. Recent comments about the conflict have raised eyebrows. The comments were printed in the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera. “I feel that before going to Kyiv, I must go to Moscow,” he told Corriere Della.
The Pope was quoted as claiming that NATO was somehow to blame for the conflict in Ukraine because of “NATO barking at Russia’s door.” This was a “scandal” and Russia had “react[ed] badly.” The comments from the Vatican, seeking to go to Moscow and not Ukraine and not strongly condemning Russia’s invasion or the civilian death toll in Ukraine are in contrast to how the same Pope has spoken about other conflicts, such as Gaza. In 2018 the Pope claimed that “defenseless” people were being killed in Gaza, during an Easter address that year.
In May 2021 the Vatican made similar calls to end the fighting between Israel and Gaza. “Many innocent people have died, amongst them, there are also children. This is terrible. Unacceptable. Their death is a sign that (people) don't want to build a future, but destroy it ... I wonder where hatred and revenge will lead?”
The war in Ukraine, where thousands have been killed, whole cities destroyed and millions forced from their homes, has gone on for months and the Vatican appears concerned about alienating Russia if its leader goes to Kyiv.
The overall reaction from the Vatican has appeared timid. It has been concerned about the conflict, according to reports, but what else has it done? “I don’t know how to answer—I’m too far away—the question of whether it is right to supply the Ukrainians,” he told the paper, according to a translation printed at The Daily Beast. “The clear thing is that weapons are being tested there. The Russians now know that tanks are of little use and are thinking of other things. This is why wars are waged: to test the weapons we have produced. Few people are fighting this trade, but more should be done.”
The comments by the Pope are confusing considering past actions by the Vatican to promote peace and end conflict. Pope John Paul II played a key role in confronting the Soviet Union and in supporting Poland in the 1980s, after a visit to the country in 1979.
The current foreign policy of the Vatican when it comes to Ukraine appears in contrast. According to reports at Politico “the Holy See has been asking since mid-March for a meeting between Francis and Putin in Moscow.” Russia has kept the Pope waiting.
“Of course we needed the leader of the Kremlin to allocate a window of time. We haven’t yet had any response, and we are still trying, even if I fear that Putin can’t and doesn’t want to have this meeting at this time,” the Pope said, according to reports. And he continues to refuse to go to Ukraine, even as other leaders have gone to Kyiv. He prefers a Moscow first approach. This appears to be an authoritarian-first policy.
Pope Francis has also alleged that “others” were involved in creating this conflict, apparently not blaming Russia for causing the war. “I am pessimistic but we must do everything possible to stop the war.”