Zelenskyy meets with Pope Francis at Vatican, says he sought backing for his peace plan
Associated Press May 13, 2023
ROME — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had private talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Saturday, later saying he sought support for his peace plan from the pontiff , who in the past has offered to try to help end the war launched by Russia's invasion of Ukraine a year ago.
Zelenskyy held his hand over his heart and said it was a "great honor" to meet with the pope. Francis, using a cane for his knee problem, came to greet the Ukrainian president before ushering him into a papal studio near the Vatican's audience hall. "Thank you for your visit,'' Francis said, as their 40-minute-long meeting began.
In a tweet after the papal audience, Zelenskyy expressed gratitude to Francis for "his personal attention to the tragedy of millions of Ukrainians." He said he spoke with the pontiff "about the tens of thousands of deported (Ukrainian) children. We must make every effort to return them home."
Last month, Ukraine's prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, asked the pope to help get the children returned from Russia to Ukraine. But the Vatican's written statement after Saturday's talks made no mention of the request for help for the children.
Instead, the Vatican said the two men spoke about Ukraine's "humanitarian and political situation provoked by the war going on."
"The pope assured his constant prayer, paid witness to by his many public appeals and by his continued invoking of the Lord for peace, since February of last year," the Vatican said, a reference to the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, by Russia's military.
"Both agreed on the need to continue humanitarian efforts" to help the population, the Holy See's statement added. "The pope underlined in particular the urgent need for 'humanitarian gestures' toward the most fragile persons, innocent victims of the conflict," the statement said.
Zelenskyy also said that he asked the pope to condemn Russian "crimes in Ukraine" because "there can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor." And he said he asked Francis to come aboard Ukraine's peace plan.
"I also talked about our Peace Formula as the only effective algorithm for achieving a just peace,'' Zelenskyy said. Later, in an interview on Italian state TV, the Ukrainian leader said the pope "knows my position. The war is in Ukraine, that is why it has to be Ukraine's plan" to bring peace.
Zelenskyy's 10-point plan would establish a special tribunal to prosecute Russian war crimes. It would also create a European-Atlantic security architecture with guarantees for Ukraine, restore Ukraine's damaged power infrastructure and ensure safety around Europe's largest nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia.
Earlier in the day, Zelenskyy received from Italian officials pledges of both open-ended military and financial support as well as stronger backing for Ukraine's cherished aim to join the European Union.
"The message is clear and simple," Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said, flanked by Zelenskyy as the two briefed reporters after their meeting at her office, which lasted more than an hour. "The future of Ukraine is a future of peace and freedom. And it's the future of Europe, a future of peace and freedom, for which there are no other possible solutions.''
Meloni also renewed her pledge to champion Ukraine's EU ambitions, saying Ukraine was moving ahead with required reforms despite the war.
The premier, who staunchly supports military aid for Ukraine, said Italy would back the country "360 degrees for all the time necessary and beyond."
Zelenskyy began his official meetings by calling on Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the presidential Quirinale Palace. "We are fully at your side," Mattarella told Zelenskyy as he welcomed him. Later, after their meeting, presidential palace sources said Mattarella assured his guest that Italy would continue to support Ukraine militarily and financially, as well as with reconstruction and humanitarian aid, in both the short and long term.
Since the war began, Italy has contributed about 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in military and financial aid, as well as humanitarian assistance.
Zelenskyy is believed to be heading to Berlin next for what would be his first visit to Germany since the war began. The exact schedule was not publicly announced because of security concerns.
At the end of April, flying back to Rome from a trip to Hungary, Francis told reporters on the plane that the Vatican was involved in a behind-the-scene peace mission but gave no details. Neither Russia nor Ukraine has confirmed such an initiative.
He has said he would like to go to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, if such a visit could be coupled with one to Moscow, in hopes a papal pilgrimage could further the cause of peace.
The German government, meanwhile, said it was providing Ukraine with additional military aid worth more than 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion), including tanks, anti-aircraft systems and ammunition.
Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said Berlin wanted to show with the latest package of arms "that Germany is serious in its support" for Ukraine.
"Germany will provide all the help it can, as long as it takes," he said.
Frank Jordans in Berlin, Joanna Kozlowska in London, and Nicole Winfield and Gianfranco Stara in Rome contributed to this report.