ROME (AP) — Pope Francis on Friday denounced the “perverse abuse of power” on display in Russia’s war in Ukraine and called for aid to Ukrainians who he said had been attacked in their “identity, history and tradition” and were “defending their land.”
Francis’ comments, in a message to a gathering of European Catholic representatives, marked some of his strongest yet in asserting Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign state and to defend itself against Russia’s invasion.
It came just days after Francis told the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, that the concept of a “just war” was obsolete since wars are never justifiable and that pastors must preach peace, not politics.
Those comments, during a video call Wednesday with Kirill, seemed to be an indirect jab at the patriarch’s apparent defense of the war. Kirill, who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has seemingly justified the invasion by describing it as part of a struggle against sin and pressure from liberal foreigners to hold “gay parades.” He has blamed the West and a fellow Orthodox patriarch for fomenting enmity between Ukraine and Russia and echoed Putin in insisting they are “one people.”
In his comments Friday, Francis did not mention Russia by name — evidence of the Vatican’s tradition of not identifying aggressors and its attempts to keep open a dialogue with Kirill’s church. But Francis strongly backed Ukraine.
“The heartbreaking scream for help from our Ukrainian brothers pushes us as a community of believers not just to serious reflection, but to cry with them and work for them; to share the anguish of a people wounded in its identity, history and tradition,” Francis told the meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia.
“The blood and tears of the children, the suffering of women and men who are defending their land or fleeing from the bombs shake our conscience. Once again humanity is threatened by a perverse abuse of power and partisan interests, which condemns defenseless people to suffer all forms of brutal violence.”
Kirill, for his part, insisted that Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who also spoke by video call with the patriarch this week, understood the Russian position and were “sympathetic” to it. He repeated that the goal of the Russian Orthodox Church “despite the very negative political context” was to preserve the “spiritual unity of our people – the Russian and Ukrainian peoples – as a single people who emerged from the Kiev Baptismal font.”
Neither the Vatican nor Lambeth Palace expressed sympathy with the Russian position in their readouts of the calls and did not refer to Russians and Ukrainians as one people.
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