Despite the best efforts of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis won’t be swayed from his support for a Ukraine free from Russian political and ecclesiastical control.

Driving the news

Putin arrived at the Vatican almost one hour late yesterday for his meeting with the Pope, in which both leaders discussed the “development of bilateral relations”, “questions of relevance to the life of the Catholic Church in Russia” and “the ecological question and various themes relating to current international affairs”, according to a Vatican statement, whose full text reads as follows:

“Today, 4 July 2019, the Holy Father Francis received in audience, in the Vatican Apostolic Palace, the President of the Russian Federation, H.E. Mr. Vladimir Putin, who subsequently met with His Eminence Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, and His Excellency Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States.

During the cordial discussions, both Parties expressed their satisfaction at the development of bilateral relations, further strengthened by the protocol of understanding signed today regarding the collaboration between the “Bambino Gesu” Paediatric Hospital and the paediatric hospitals of the Russian Federation. They then turned their attention to various questions of relevance to the life of the Catholic Church in Russia.

The Parties went on to consider the ecological question and various themes relating to current international affairs, with particular reference to Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela”.

The big picture

Central to the meeting between the Pope and Putin, however, was the Ukrainian question. Specifically, the occupation of Crimea, the war in the Donbass region, the mass migration in this part of Russia and the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Moscow.

As SIR reports, the extent of the crisis in Ukraine is troubling:

  • Five years after the Russian annexation of Crimea, almost 40,000 citizens of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol are counted as internally displaced persons by the Ukrainian Social Affairs Ministry. 41.5% of these people now live in the Kiev region
  • According to the latest Report of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, since 2014 some 13,000 people have been killed in hostilities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. 30,000 people have been injured or wounded, 400,000 people are estimated to have fought in the conflict and over a thousand young people have committed suicide as a result of war traumas
  • An estimated 5.2 million people have been adversely affected by the war in the Donbass, 3.5 million of whom necessitate humanitarian assistance and protection
  • The 2.7 million people who live in the 427km-long “grey zone” between Donetsk and Luhansk continue to suffer food and water shortages, the presence of landmine and other unexploded ordinances, mental health problems and severe stress and ruined and damaged infrastructure
  • 50,000 residential buildings along the grey zone have been damaged as a result of the conflict
  • Other parts of Ukraine have taken in approximately two million refugees from the occupied territories in the last five years

The conflicts in Crimea and Donbass have been exacerbated by the decision in January of the Patriarch of Constantinople – the head of the world’s Orthodox faithful – to grant independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, thus severing it from the control of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Between the lines

Putin visited the Pope with the aim of drumming up support for both his policies in Crimea and the Donbass and also for the return of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Russian control.

It was no accident that the president visited the Pope one day before a special high-level meeting between Francis, the heads of various Vatican departments – or dicasteries – and the leaders of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church.

Putin’s desire to sway the Pope was also evidenced by the announcement just days before the Vatican summit that the Russian Orthodox Church has been in talks with Moscow government officials to spend up to $2 billion dollars on the construction of an ‘Orthodox Vatican’, thereby pointing up its superior political and financial power with regard to the Patriarchy of Constantinople

For the record

“In the delicate and complex situation in which Ukraine finds itself, the Holy Father Francis has decided to invite to Rome, July 5 to 6, 2019, the Major Archbishop, the members of the permanent Synod and the Metropolitans of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church”, read a Vatican press release confirming the meeting in early May.

“The meeting will also be attended by the Superiors of the competent Dicasteries of the Roman Curia responsible for the country.

“With this meeting, the Holy Father wishes to give a sign of his closeness to the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church that carries out pastoral service both at home and in various places in the world.

“This meeting will also offer a further opportunity to deepen the analysis of the life and needs of Ukraine, with the aim of identifying the ways in which the Catholic Church, and in particular the Greek-Catholic Church, can dedicate itself ever more effectively to preaching the Gospel, contributing to the support of those who suffer and promoting peace, in agreement, as far as possible, with the Catholic Church of the Latin rite and with other Churches and Christian communities”.

Go deeper

Pope Francis also launched in 2016 the ‘Pope for Ukraine’ initiative, a project that has raised $12.5 million thanks to collections all over Europe and a $5 million personal donation from the Pope himself.

The money has benefitted almost a million people throughout the Ukraine, not only in the Donbass region but in those regions, such as Kiev, which have received the majority of the country’s internally-displaced people.