ROME — Facing international criticism over Russia’s role in the ongoing violence in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin arrived in the Vatican on Wednesday to meet a figure with whom he’s forged an improbable geopolitical partnership on other fronts: Pope Francis.
During their 50-minute meeting, the two leaders talked about the conflict in Ukraine and the situation in the Middle East.
“On the Ukrainian situation, the Holy Father stated that it’s urgent to begin an honest and great effort to achieve peace,” a Vatican spokesman said.
According to the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, both leaders agreed on the need to reconstruct a climate of dialogue in Ukraine and the importance of the commitment to implementing the Minsk agreements, a 2014 framework for peace worked out under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
On Middle Eastern conflicts, particularly Syria and Iraq, Lombardi said the meeting confirmed “that which has already been agreed upon” regarding the urgency of pursuing peace, with the concrete involvement of the international community, “ensuring in the meantime the necessary conditions for the life of all the members of society, including religious minorities.”
According to those present, the atmosphere was “very serious but cordial,” with both Francis and Putin remaining in silence while photographers and journalists were still in the room.
As is customary during these meetings, the two leaders exchanged gifts. Putin gave Francis an embroidered picture of the Moscow’s Church of Jesus Savior, destroyed in Soviet times and recently rebuilt.
The pope gave the Russian president a medallion portraying the Angel of Peace, who Francis said “defeats all wars and speaks of the solidarity between peoples.” He also gave Putin a copy of his apostolic exhortation “Joy of the Gospel,” saying it’s full of “religious, human, geopolitical, and social reflections.”
Both the medallion and the apostolic exhortation are recurring gifts the pope gives to the political leaders who visit him.
Putin arrived to the appointment 75 minutes late, breaking his own record: When he visited Francis in 2013, he arrived 50 minutes late.
The pope and the Russian president have enjoyed an odd-couple bond of sorts since the beginning of Francis’ pontificate.
In 2013, as the United States and other Western nations prepared to deploy military force against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, to try to stop the invasion Putin reportedly told the members of the United Nations Security Council that “we might listen to the pope.”
Francis had sent him a letter, urging member nations “to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution.” By all accounts, it was Francis’ missive that stopped the invasion.
In a similar manner, Francis finds in Putin an ally for the protection of persecuted minorities in the Middle East. Given that the majority of the embattled Christians being killed by Islamic terrorist group ISIS are Orthodox, Putin insists that Russia has a special historical role as their protector.
The situation in the Ukraine, however, remains a sore spot.
Francis has so far refrained from calling Moscow out for the Kremlin’s role in the conflict, “calling it a fratricidal war.” Putin has publicly denied the presence of Russian military forces on the ground.
Talking at a press conference in the northern Italian city of Milan — that caused the 75-minute delay — the Russian dignitary referred to this crisis, telling reporters that “the only solution for Ukraine is peace.”
Previous to the meeting between Francis and Putin, the Patriarch of the Greek Ukrainian Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, sent a letter to Pope Francis asking him to “become the voice of Ukrainian people” and to “defend his children” during the meeting.
Shevchuk told the Polish news site Polityce that, “No one, no diplomat, no system of international security, and none of the great men of this world has been capable of stopping the war in Ukraine.”
He also said that in his letter he had asked the pontiff to become the voice of the faithful Catholics in Ukraine who are suffering as result of the ongoing conflict.
“I asked the pope to, as our father, defend his children,” Shevchuk said.
The Patriarch also said that he sees great similarities between Pope Francis’ meeting with Putin and Pope St. John Paul II’s visit to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989, after which the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was allowed to come out of hiding, after being repressed by the USSR.
Much may depend on this meeting, Shevchuk said.
“We believe that the Holy Father as the Vicar of Jesus Christ on Earth can do what none of the great men of this world could do up to this point. We hope that the he will intercede for us,” the Patriarch said.
Shevchuk’s hopes are shared by the United States.
On Wednesday, Kenneth Hackett, the US ambassador to the Holy See, said the country would like to see the Vatican increase its concern on the Ukrainian situation during the pope’s meeting with Putin.
“We think they could say something more about [the] concern of territorial integrity, those types of issues,” Hackett told reporters. “It does seem that Russia is supporting the insurgents. And it does seem that there are Russian troops inside Ukraine. This is a very serious situation.”