Francis compares Ukraine to Rwanda, unsure about arming Kyiv

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Pope Francis says that he let Russian President Vladimir Putin know that he is ready to go to Moscow to make his case for peace. 

In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the pontiff said he also warned Russian Patriach Kirill against becoming an “altar boy” for the Kremlin, and compared the ongoing war in Ukraine to Rwanda’s genocide.

“On the first day of the war I called Ukrainian President Zelenskyy on the phone,” Francis said. “Instead, I did not call Putin. I had heard from him in December for my birthday but this time no, I did not call.”

However, he wanted to make “a clear gesture” for the world to see, which is the reason he went to the Russian embassy to the Holy See. 

”I asked them to explain; I said, ‘please stop’,” Francis disclosed, before acknowledging that, “I asked Cardinal [Pietro] Parolin, after 20 days of war, to send Putin the message that I was willing to go to Moscow.”

Despite the Vatican’s diplomatic efforts, the pope said they have not yet had an answer, and he fears Putin can’t, rather than won’t, meet with him at this time. 

“But such brutality, how can you not stop it?” he said. “Twenty-five years ago with Rwanda we experienced the same thing.”

According to the Italian newspaper, there was a vein of pessimism in the pope as he recalled the efforts that the Vatican has been making to try to secure a ceasefire.

The pope is also quoted as saying that he has attempted to think about the roots of Putin’s seemingly unstoppable behavior, acknowledging it might have been “NATO’s barking at Russia’s door.”

“I cannot say if this anger was provoked,” he said. “But perhaps facilitated.”

On the question of NATO countries supplying weapons to Ukraine to try to fend off Russian aggression, the Italian newspaper said Francis expressed his doubts.

On the one hand, his doctrine on peace has been centered on condemning the arms race and calling for the deescalation of weapons production, but he understands the need for Ukrainians to defend themselves.

“I can’t answer, I’m too far away, the question of whether it’s right to supply the Ukrainians,” the pope said. “The clear thing is that weapons are being tested in that land. The Russians now know that tanks are of little use and are thinking of other things. Wars are made for this: to test the weapons we have produced. This is what happened in the Spanish Civil War before the Second World War.” 

“The arms trade is a scandal, few fight it,” he said. “Two or three years ago in [the Italian port of] Genoa, a ship arrived loaded with weapons that were to be transferred on a large cargo ship to transport them to Yemen. The port workers didn’t want to do that. They said, let’s think about the children in Yemen. It’s a small thing, but a nice gesture. There should be many like that.”

Pointing out that he has sent two cardinals to Ukraine – Michael Czerny and Konrad Krajewski – since the war began, he said, “I feel that I must not go. I have to go to Moscow first, I have to meet Putin first. But I am also a priest, what can I do? I do what I can. If Putin would open the door…”

The pope also shared more about his conversation with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and why he thinks he won’t try and convince Putin to back down.

“I spoke with Kirill for 40 minutes via Zoom. During the first 20, with a card in his hand, he read me all the justifications for the war,” Francis recalled. “I listened and told him: I don’t understand anything about this. Brother, we are not state clerics, we cannot use the language of politics, but the language of Jesus. We are pastors of the same holy people of God. That is why we have to look for ways of peace, to stop the fire of weapons.”

Francis also said that “the Patriarch cannot become Putin’s altar boy,” and that the second meeting between the two, that had been penciled in for June 14 in Jerusalem, has been canceled.

Discussing his alarm of a third world war being fought piecemeal – something he has been saying since the beginning of his pontificate in 2013 – Francis said that it was an observation of reality, looking at the fact that Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and many African places had one war after the other.

“There are international interests in every bit of it,” he said. 

“One cannot think that a free state can wage war on another free state,” Francis said in the interview.

He also acknowledged that, after the reaction from Ukraine over a woman from Ukraine and another from Russia carrying the cross during the papal-led Way of the Cross on Good Friday, Krajewski insisted that the prepared meditation not be read.

“They were right, even if we could not fully understand,” Francis said. “They have a susceptibility; they feel defeated or enslaved because in the Second World War they paid so much. So many men died, it is a martyred people.”

The pope also regretted that there is not enough “will” for peace, and that he is “pessimistic” about the war since seeing Russia’s escalation and attempt to take all of Ukraine’s Black Sea port.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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