ROME – Continuing his peace mission on behalf of Pope Francis amid the war in Ukraine, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi met Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and other leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church Thursday, just days after the Orthodox prelates stood uniformly behind Russian President Vladimir Putin during a short-lived insurrection by Wagner Group mercenaries.
“Even in the current conditions, which are also marked by many risks and many dangers, the churches can, by joint efforts, prevent the negative development of political circumstances and serve the cause of peace and justice,” Kirill told Zuppi, according to an account provided by the website of the Patriarchate of Moscow.
Even as the religious leaders met, there were fresh reminders of how difficult brokering a peace deal may be. Ukrainian forces continued their counter-offensive Thursday around the battle-scarred city of Bakhmut, while the death count from a Russian missile attack on a pizza restaurant in the eastern city of Kramatorsk rose to 12 people, including four children.
Meanwhile, in comments to Russian television, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insisted that the war in Ukraine will continue despite the Wagner Group uprising, saying “the objectives are fixed” and there will be no slow-down.
Against that background, Kirill told Zuppi reconciliation efforts are key.
“It is very important that in this difficult time, the Christian communities of East and West participate in the process of reconciliation,” Kirill was quoted as having told Zuppi.
Kirill was flanked during the meeting by Metropolitan Anthony of Volokolamsk, chair of the Department of External Relations for the Patriarchate of Moscow and in effect the number two official in the Russian Orthodox Church, along with two other senior clerics.
Zuppi was accompanied by Italian Archbishop Giovanni d’Agnello, the pope’s ambassador to Russia; Monsignor Peter Tarnavsky from the Vatican embassy; Monsignor Paul Butnaru, an official of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State; and Italian layman Adriano Roccucci, Vice President of the Community of Saint Egidio to which Zuppi himself belongs.
As a young priest of Saint Egidio thirty years ago, Zuppi, archbishop of Bologna and president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, helped the Vatican negotiate the Mozambique peace accords in 1992.
His June 28-29 outing to Moscow follows a June 5-6 trip to Kyiv, where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other top state and religious officials, including Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk.
It also follows a mid-May trip to Rome by Zelenskyy in which the Ukrainian leader met the pope, telling him, “We don’t need mediators” and asking the Vatican to support his own peace plan. Zuppi’s trip to Moscow marks the first visit by a senior Vatican official since the war broke out after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
Zuppi’s meeting with Kirill is the first time the Russian Orthodox patriarch has encountered a high-profile Catholic leader since his historic meeting with Pope Francis in 2016, which marked the first-ever meeting between a pope and a Russian patriarch.
Negotiations for a second meeting between the two were underway when the war broke out last year, with the Vatican ultimately pulling the plug on a planned encounter in Jerusalem last June, citing the diplomatic fallout the meeting would generate given Kirill’s vocal support of the war.
Zuppi kicked off his Moscow visit Wednesday by meeting Yuri Ushakov, a longtime foreign policy advisor to Putin and a former Russian Ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2008.
Afterwards, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that “no specific agreement” had been reached in the exchange between Zuppi and Ushakov, but that “the dialogue will continue if it’s necessary.”
“It was an exchange of views and information on humanitarian questions in the context of the Ukrainian situation,” Peskov said.
According to d’Aniello, who has served as the papal envoy to Russia since 2020, Zuppi’s mission is primarily “to identify and encourage humanitarian initiatives that permit the beginning of a path which, we hope, can lead to a much-desired peace.”
Thursday morning, Zuppi met Marija Alekseevna L’vova-Belova, Russia’s Commissioner for the Rights of Children, likely to discuss the issue of Ukrainian children deported to Russia. Along with Putin himself, Belova is also the subject of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the deportation and illegal transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia.
Following their meeting, Belova issued a statement on her Telegram channel saying she and Zuppi “discussed humanitarian issues related to military operations and the protection of children’s rights.”
“I am sure that Christian love and compassion will help dialogue and mutual understanding,” she said.
Zuppi closed his mission with a Mass Thursday evening in the Catholic Cathedral of the Mother of God, where he met the Catholic community, “to transmit the greetings, closeness and prayers of the Holy Father.”
Zuppi is expected to return to Rome Friday in the early afternoon.
Archbishop Paolo Pezzi, who leads the Archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow and serves as the president of the Russian Catholic Bishops Conference, spoke about Zuppi’s visit with Vatican News, the Vatican’s official state-run news platform.
Pezzi said the aim of the visit is not a “human solution” to the war, but is rather a hope that “a way can be found to be able to experience the peace that God give us.”
“Providence wanted this trip to take place at a difficult time for civil coexistence in Russia,” he said.
Zuppi’s visit came just days after an unprecedented challenge to Vladimir Putin’s authority in Russia when members of the Wagner Group – a mercenary force contracted by Moscow to fight against Ukraine – marched on Moscow.
Kirill and other Russian Orthodox bishops placed themselves solidly behind Putin during the aborted coup.
As it unfolded on Saturday, Kirill issued a message saying any threat to national unity was “the greatest crime that has no justification,” and also “I support the efforts of the Head of the Russian State aimed at preventing unrest in our country.”
In his comments to Vatican Media, Pezzi stressed that peace is not the fruit of human efforts, but is rather “a gift which we unfortunately continually destroy in an awkward way.”
“It is important that for this, there is a willingness of hearts and minds to make peace,” he said, saying the Catholic Church in Russia constantly prays for peace and asks God “that hearts of stone can be transformed into hearts of flesh.”
Though often celebrated by Kirill as necessary to defend Christian values against Western secularism, the war, Pezzi insisted, must “not have a religious basis.”
“We must thank the Lord because, at least until today, there has been no desire to involve religions as, unfortunately, has happened in other conflicts,” he said, saying religions, and Christians in particular, “can play a big role” in peace efforts.
“For this reason, it is necessary that there be an involvement of religious leaders in this dialogue,” he said, calling Zuppi’s meeting with Kirill “a really important occasion.”
According to the Moscow Patriarchate’s account, Kirill also discussed with Zuppi what he called the “persecution” suffered by the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, which has been under investigation since November by the Ukrainian government for allegedly acting as a front for pro-Russian propaganda. The Church has been expelled from its headquarters, and a handful of its priests have been charged with treason.