Pope Francis tells Putin: 'sincere' peace efforts needed for Ukraine

Pair agree in Vatican on need to ‘restore climate of dialogue’ between Russia and Ukraine after pontiff expresses deep concern over ‘great humanitarian crisis’ in the region

Pope Francis spent most of an hour-long meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday night discussing the crisis in Ukraine, with the pontiff calling for a “sincere and great effort to achieve peace” in the region.

The meeting, for which Putin was more than an hour late – as he has been in other meetings with world leaders – included an exchange of gifts, with the pope giving Putin a medallion of an “angel of peace”. A similar gift stirred controversy when it was given to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

The Vatican said in a statement that both Pope Francis and Putin agreed on the need to “restore a climate of dialogue” and that Russia and Ukraine should implement a peace plan negotiated in Minsk. “The Holy Father affirmed that it is necessary to make a sincere and great effort to forge peace,” the Vatican said.

This week, US president Barack Obama said that G7 nations would toughen sanctions against Russia if the conflict in Ukraine escalated. The meeting with Pope Francis was far less confrontational, but the pontiff appears to have taken a more direct approach to the Russian leader than he has in the past. Francis spoke to Putin about the “grave humanitarian crisis” in the region and the need for victims of the conflict to be given access to aid.

The two also discussed the crisis in the Middle East and the persecution of Christians, a topic of great importance to Francis – he has chided global leaders for diminishing the scale of the problem – and to the Russian president.

The meeting occurred hours after a top American diplomat, Kenneth Hackett, told reporters that he hoped the pope “could say more about concerns on territorial integrity” and that Francis had “certainly” been made aware of the violence in Ukraine. Hackett is the US ambassador to the Holy See.

In February, the pope referred to the bloodshed in the Ukrainian conflict as fratricidal, a comment seen as controversial in Ukraine, where the violence is viewed as a direct consequence of Russian aggression.

Putin arrived at the Vatican meeting in a stretch limousine after flying into Rome from Milan, where he had been treated to a warm welcome by Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi. The presidential visit underscores Russia’s cosy relationship with Italy at a time when Putin is otherwise being treated as a pariah on the world stage. Renzi even made some jokes about vodka – saying he hoped the two would not be drinking Russia’s national drink on an empty stomach – and football.

Renzi noted that Russia would soon host a major international event – the 2018 World Cup – without making any reference to the scandal that has engulfed Fifa or the controversy over the selection of Russia as a host nation.

At a press conference after the meeting, Renzi said that even though different countries within Europe had “different ideas” about how the sanctions were reached, all of the EU was “in the same place”. He said that the implementation of a peace plan agreed in Minsk would end the phase of “diatribes and sanctions” against Russia. The two leaders also discussed how sanctions had prevented Italy and Russia from working together on a number of projects involving Italian companies, Renzi said.

Putin was expected to end his whirlwind trip to Italy with a meeting with billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier. The two are known to be good friends. The last time that Putin visited Berlusconi in Italy, after a summit in Milan in October, he did not leave Berlusconi’s villa until 3am, according to reports at the time.


Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome

The GuardianTramp

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