Pope may pray for Putin – but he maintains neutrality towards Ukraine – POLITICO

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ROME — As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council just weeks after the Kremlin rolled tanks into Ukraine, some 140 diplomats walked out. One of the few who stayed: the envoy of the Holy See.

The Holy See’s decision typifies what some in the West see as an annoying tendency for the neutral sovereign authority to sit on the fence rather than name and shame Russian President Vladimir Putin, who uses those of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church Has imprimatur to legitimize his brutal, revanchist war in Ukraine.

In several intergovernmental organizations, the territory has repeatedly abstained from votes condemning Russian aggression, even before the invasion of Ukraine. At the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Holy See refused to support a measure condemning the Kremlin’s use of nerve agents. And in March, the Holy See abstained from voting at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which comprises several dozen European countries, on a vote to investigate possible war crimes in Ukraine.

Instead, Pope Francis has chosen to lament the war with vigorous but unspecific rhetoric. He branded it a “sacrilegious war” and spoke of a “potentate enmeshed in anachronistic claims of national interests.”

But he avoided mentioning Vladimir Putin and Russia. He also failed to mention the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, a key Putin supporter who has sanctioned the invasion as a “holy war.” And in particular, Francis has spoken out against sending arms to Ukraine, saying that rearmament will create a new “balance of terror.”

For Francis, the dilemma is whether to use his moral standing to specifically denounce Russia or to hold back, hoping to make room for mediation. A possible constructive role could be, for example, to include the Russian Orthodox Church in conflict resolution options.

Church supporters say that an unwavering commitment to neutrality is pragmatic, as it leaves the door open to dialogue and long-term thinking out of conviction. It’s also unclear what the Vatican could do with a more aggressive tone given Putin’s intransigence and the Holy See’s lack of power over the Russian Orthodox Church, which enthusiastically supports Putin’s war.

Cardinal Michael Czerny, who has worked in Ukraine on behalf of the pope, said Francis had already been “very harsh” in his criticism. “There is no need to name names,” he added. “It just makes the dialogue more difficult.”

Nevertheless, the actions of the Holy See have left a bitter taste in some people.

“When the Western allies see the Holy See diplomat Lavrov listening when everyone else has left the room, it hurts. They say they can’t be political, but it’s seen as taking sides with Russia,” a Western diplomat said.

A state without state interests

The motivations of the church, often rooted in faith rather than politics, can be difficult for the secular world to understand.

“A pope always hopes that each individual will experience a personal conversion,” said Victor Gaetan, author of God’s Diplomats, Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon.

Francis, Gaetan added, will pray “continuously” for Putin.

The Vatican is a state, but a state with no economic, military, or territorial interests. That frees him to focus on the common good of all people, Gaetan said, including addressing immediate concerns like access to food and water, humanitarian corridors and personal safety, as well as longer-term goals like protecting prayer facilities.

But as he weighs his words in public, Francis isn’t sitting idle. He taps into diplomatic channels behind the scenes.

The pope “is active in the areas of diplomacy and negotiations,” said Czerny, the cardinal in Ukraine, citing talks Francis has had with both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Kirill. “The pope tries to bring together, not further divide, and often works in the shadows and in silence.”

After the invasion, Francis also paid an unprecedented visit to the Russian Embassy to the Holy See. The meeting broke protocol and drew attention. Typically, a head of state calls or invites an ambassador for an interview — rather than simply showing up at the ambassador’s office.

The move was “amazingly unusual,” said the Western diplomat. “Never heard of it. The gesture is about humility, thinking about the message, not the protocol.”

diplomatic success

The Holy See has some historic successes in conflict resolution.

Popes and Catholic humanitarian organizations such as the Community of Sant’Egidio have served as mediators in conflicts in Mozambique, Lebanon and Kosovo. Catholic officials also helped mediate a clash between Argentina and Chile.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Pope John XXIII. even gave credit for helping bring the US and Russia back from the brink of nuclear war as he begged the country’s leaders to keep talking. The overture gave Russian Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev an excuse to portray his descent as an act of peace rather than cowardice.

More recently, Francis facilitated the resumption of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba after a half-century of embargo. And in 2016, a spiritual retreat hosted by Francis for South Sudanese leaders helped avert civil war.

Priests serving as diplomats “focus on what the two sides have in common and identify common goals,” said Gaetan, the author, adding that they “strive to make the two sides more humane to one another.” .

Negotiating lasting political deals can take years and test the patience of elected officials. But as one senior church official put it, “Politicians think in months, we in the church act in millennia.”

Of course, not all Holy See diplomacy has been considered successful or even desirable.

There is still considerable controversy over Pope Pius XII’s silence. in the condemnation of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. His detractors argued that with a very large Catholic population in both Germany and Austria, he could have undermined support for the regime. The Vatican claims it remained silent to protect the church’s behind-the-scenes efforts to protect Nazi victims, including Jews.

In Ukraine, the pope has to walk a tightrope. He will endeavor to avoid portraying the conflict as a clash of civilizations, West against East, whose origins may well date back to the Great Schism between Eastern Orthodox Churches and Western Christianity in 1054.

For Francis, as for all recent popes, the reunification of the Christian churches is a central mission. The Holy See began rebuilding relations with Russia under John Paul II, when Kirill was the main external interlocutor for Russia. Francis was the first pope to meet a Russian patriarch when he sat down with Kirill in 2016.

But the war has hampered attempts to bring the churches closer together.

The Russian state and the Russian Church officially share the same goal: to regain control of Ukraine.

According to Gaetan, many in Russia were appalled when Ukraine’s Orthodox Church recognized its own independent head in 2019, reporting to no external patriarch or bishop. Some Russians even saw the US hand behind the move as a concrete way to reduce Russian influence in Ukraine.

“I’m afraid the Russian Orthodox Church saw this as a declaration of war, as did the Russian state,” Gaetan said.

Francis said a visit to Kyiv was “on the table”.

Although Francis is one of the most influential figures in the world and his presence would show solidarity with Ukraine, he wants to ensure that each visit is more than symbolic and a step towards at least a truce – an unlikely feat.

Furthermore, it is doubtful whether the Pope’s influence would extend to the Russian Orthodox Church, given its pro-Putin sentiment.

Religious leaders can play a role in post-conflict reconciliation efforts, when restoring trust requires more than just political dialogue.

But the world is now waiting for a miracle – one the Vatican is unlikely to conjure up. Pope may pray for Putin - but he maintains neutrality towards Ukraine - POLITICO

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