ROME – When it comes to aiding the millions of people who have had to flee Ukraine since the beginning of Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, few have done more than neighboring Poland.
Ambassador Janusz Andrzej Kotański, the Polish representative to the Vatican, told Crux that even though Pope Francis is following traditional “papal diplomacy” in being cautious when it comes to naming the aggressor – Russia, in this case – the words of the pope were “very clear” this last Sunday.
During his Angelus, Francis said: “Rivers of blood and tears are flowing in Ukraine. It is not merely a military operation, but a war, which sows death, destruction and misery.”
What follows are excerpts of the Polish ambassador’s conversation with Crux.
Crux: Can you explain, briefly, what Poland is doing to welcome Ukrainian refugees?
Kotański: The scope of the support of the Polish government and the Polish society is unprecedented. Practically all state and local structures are involved. On one hand the aid is aimed to ensure as soon as possible shelter for all refugees. Many of them are accommodated in the state properties (also the Polish president shares with refugees his official residences), but also thousands of private people welcome them in their homes.
In spite of the fact that over 1.5 million refugees have arrived in two weeks to Poland, there is no need to organize refugee camps which we know from other crises. On the other hand there is a huge range of financial and material assistance for refugees, but also for people in Ukraine.
There are also concrete legal steps that will facilitate welcoming of refugees: financial support for the host families, access to the labor market and health assistance for the refugees, and a possibility of learning in Polish schools for the kids from Ukraine.
Is it true, as some reports have claimed, that the Polish government is only welcoming those fleeing Ukraine who have a Ukrainian passport?
That’s definitely not true. Polish authorities do not discriminate against anybody. Among those who entered Poland there are people from over 170 countries. It’s the whole world. The Polish government receives words of gratitude from all over the world. I will only mention India with over 5,000 citizens who managed to escape from Ukraine to Poland.
The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, said clearly in one of his recent interviews that the alleged cases of racism on the border is Russian propaganda. He added that “there was no conscious discrimination” against anyone on either side of the border.
What role do Catholic organizations have in Poland’s welcoming of over 1.5 million refugees since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began?
Catholic organizations play an enormous role. In the first place, I would mention, of course, Caritas, but there are also other organizations like the Order of Malta or Sant’Egidio present in Poland. I would also like to stress the involvement of the Catholic Church with all its dioceses and parishes which are open for refugees and their needs. Also Polish bishops, among them the archbishop of Krakow, Marek Jędraszewski, offered shelter for refugees in their residences. By the way, as does the Polish President Andrzej Duda.
How has your relationship with the Vatican’s Secretariat of State changed in these past two weeks, if at all?
The good relationship with the Secretary of State is always crucial for each embassy, so I wouldn’t speak about a change. But of course it is a more intensive time for us than usual. Our position regarding the strong support for Ukraine and our assessment of the Russian regime have always been pretty clear for all our partners.
What do you think the world can learn from Polish history that could be a lesson now on how to deal with Russia?
Unfortunately, what we learned from history is that Russia understands only the strong language and respects only determined partners. Russia is not the normal political partner, or a normal, democratic state which you can trust. They will misuse for their goals every weakness you demonstrate.
Polish politicians and diplomats have been stressing it continuously for years. Now it is pretty clear that our hard opposition against [gas pipes] Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 and support for strong transatlantic bounds were profoundly rational and not Russophobic as some of our Western partners used to depict us.
I am a historian and I have written about the Soviet atrocities of the 20th century in my books many times. Unfortunately, the present days are showing that Muscovites simply do not change.
What do you think the Holy See in particular can learn from St. John Paul II’s politics with Russia?
St. John Paul II understood profoundly Russia and Eastern Europe and knew personally what the communist regime meant for the church and the world. Simultaneously, he was an open-minded person and was ready for truth-based dialogue with each person of good will. It was him who spoke that Europe must breathe with two lungs – the Western and the Eastern one. His politics of strong moral virtues has brought people of Central-Eastern Europe freedom and a fall of the Iron Curtain. We must not forget also about his stubborn support for the Polish “Solidarity” movement which began the fall of the Soviet “evil” empire.
From a diplomatic perspective, do you understand why Pope Francis, though emphatic in his condemnation of this war, has yet to publicly mention Russia as the aggressor?
The papal diplomacy, also in the times of St. John Paul II, has always been very cautious when it comes to the language, bearing in mind the enormous responsibility for the church in the whole world. But the words of Pope Francis from the Prayer Angelus last Sunday are very clear: “Rivers of blood and tears are flowing in Ukraine. It is not merely a military operation, but a war, which sows death, destruction and misery.” It is very sad that the Russian regime does not allow the quoting of these strong and true messages of the Pope by the media in Russia.
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