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ROME – In a new interview with the Jesuit-sponsored America magazine, Pope Francis defended himself against charges that’s been excessively silent on both Russia and China – Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine, and China vis-à-vis its record on human rights and especially religious freedom.
From time to time, critics have suggested that just as Pope Pius XII is sometimes reviled today for his alleged “silence” during the Holocaust, so Pope Francis may one day face a negative historical judgment for his discretion on both Moscow and Beijing.
As if right on cue, events yesterday proceeded to illustrate why Francis, or any pope, has to think carefully before issuing the sort of specific condemnations to which the pontiff referred.
In that same America interview, Francis briefly touched on the human cost of the conflict in Ukraine, saying he’s received “much information about the cruelty of the troops.” He included an observation about the source of the greatest abuses.
“As a rule, the most cruel, perhaps, are those who are from Russia, but do not adhere to the Russian tradition, such as Chechens, Buryats and so on,” the pope said, referring to two ethnic minorities who often supply front-line troops in Russia’s conflicts.
Chechens, from the south-west of Russia, are mostly Muslim. Buryats, meanwhile, are a Mongol ethnic group indigenous to eastern Siberia who traditionally follow Buddhist and shamanic beliefs.
Quite possibly, Francis intended the comment as an indirect overture to Moscow, a way of saying that the Russians themselves may not be quite as bloodthirsty as depicted. Based on the reactions from Moscow, that’s not quite how the pope’s words played out.
Yesterday a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, lashed out in response to the papal interview.
“This is no longer Russophobia, it’s a perversion of the truth on a level I can’t even name,” Zakharova told the Russian news agency TASS.
Afterwards, Zakharova dispatched a Tweet effectively accusing the pope of trying to divide the Russian forces: “We are one family with Buryats, Chechens and other representatives of our multinational and multi-confessional country,” she wrote.
Alexey Tsydenov, governor of the Republic of Buryatia, was equally astringent in his reaction.
“To hear the head of the Catholic Church talk about the cruelty of specific nationalities, meaning the Buryats and the Chechens, is strange to say the least,” Tsydenov said. “Our soldiers do their duty with honor,” adding that given the checkered history of the Crusades, perhaps Catholic leaders shouldn’t be giving lessons to others about the morality of armed conflict.
Even the head of the Buddhist tradition followed by most Buryats, Damba Ayusheev, joined the chorus of criticism, calling the pope’s rhetoric “unexpected and unkind.”
“I think the European Latins don’t understand that living in the cold Siberia and the Far East makes people more persistent, patient and resilient to various hardships,” Ayusheev said. “So our people are not cruel, they simply have to once again protect their Homeland from Nazism, just like our grandfathers and their fathers did.”
It might be tempting to dismiss this tit-for-tat as a verbal tempest in a teapot, expect for another inconvenient fact.
Also yesterday, the pontifical organization Aid to the Church in Need reported the arrest of two Catholic priests in the Russian-occupied port city of Berdiansk in southeastern Ukraine. The priests, Fathers Ivan Levitskyi and Bohdan Heleta, had been providing pastoral care to both Greek Catholic and Latin rite believers, and are among the few clergy who stayed behind after the Russian occupation.
According to the Aid to the Church in Need report, the two priests stand accused of preparing a terrorist attack and are being held in a pre-trial detention center. If convicted, the crime with which the priests are charged theoretically could lead to the death penalty. The local prelate, Bishop Stepan Meniok, has called the arrests “groundless and unlawful.”
It’s not clear whether the arrests were a response to the new papal interview or if they preceded it, although one Italian newspaper has already suggested that it’s a form of “blackmail to force Francis into silence.”
In any event, it’s unlikely that the contretemps will help the priests’ situation. It likely will also set back efforts by the Vatican to position itself as a potential mediator in the conflict with Ukraine.
In retrospect, it’s entirely possible that Pope Francis and his advisers today are wishing they could roll back even the limited openness the pontiff demonstrated in his America interview.
If you ever wonder, in other words, why popes aren’t more outspoken in such conflict situations, just remember that popes are well aware that they don’t have to live personally with the aftermath of such declarations – that, alas, is the fate of figures such as Levitskyi and Heleta, and no pope is eager to put more of his own people into harm’s way.