VATICAN CITY, Aug 28 (Reuters) – Pope Francis came under criticism on Monday for urging Russian youth to remember that they are the heirs of previous tsars such as Peter the Great, using President Vladimir Putin as an example to justify it led the invasion of Ukraine.
Ukraine said the comments made by Pope Francis in a live video address to Catholic youth gathered in St. Petersburg on Friday were “deeply regrettable.”
Francis read his prepared speech in Spanish but switched to spontaneous Italian at the end and said, “Do not forget (your) inheritance. You are heirs of great Russia – great Russia of saints, kings, great Russia.” by Peter the Great, by Catherine II, the great Russian Empire, cultivated, so much culture, so much humanity. You are the heirs of the great mother Russia. Go forward.”
The Vatican released the text of the address on Saturday but did not add the final, improvised paragraph. A video of the Pope making the comments has been posted on religious websites.
“It is precisely with this imperialist propaganda, ‘spiritual ties’ and ‘necessity’ to save ‘Great Mother Russia’ that the Kremlin justifies the murder of thousands of Ukrainians and the destruction of Ukrainian towns and villages,” said spokesman Oleg Nikolenko for Ukraine’s foreign ministry , said on Facebook.
“It is deeply unfortunate that the pope, knowingly or unknowingly, expresses such notions of a great power that essentially contribute to Russia’s chronic aggressiveness,” Nikolenko said.
Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of Ukraine’s Eastern Rite Catholic Church, said in a statement that the pope’s words caused “great pain and concern” and feared they could “fuel the aggressor country’s neocolonial ambitions”. He asked the Vatican for an explanation.
An editorial on Italy’s Il Sismografo website, which specializes in Catholic affairs, called the Pope’s words “strange” at a delicate moment in history.
It noted that Catherine, commonly known as Catherine the Great, who ruled from 1729 to 1796, annexed Crimea in 1783. It has also been pointed out that Catherine protected the Jesuits in Russian-controlled areas after Pope Clement XIV suppressed the order worldwide in 1773. Pope Francis is a Jesuit.
HOMAGE TO THE CZAR
Last year, Putin paid tribute to Tsar Peter the Great, the other Russian leader mentioned by the pope, and drew a parallel between what he described as their two historic quests to win back Russian lands.
Putin has repeatedly sought to justify Russia’s actions in Ukraine, where his troops have devastated cities, killed thousands and forced millions to flee, by presenting a view of history that says Ukraine has no real national identity or tradition of statehood.
“This is really outrageous,” former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said on X, formerly known as Twitter, of the pope’s remarks.
Nexta, a website reporting on Belarus from Poland, said on X: “By the way, the Catholics of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus have three times rebelled against this ‘enlightened empire’.”
Francis called Russia’s actions in Ukraine brutal, cruel and cruel and said the invasion violated a country’s right to self-determination. Since the invasion in February 2022, he has spoken of a “martyrical Ukraine” in almost every public appearance.
But he also committed a number of obvious faux pas when speaking spontaneously.
Last year he angered Kiev by calling Russian ultranationalist Darya Dugina, who was killed in a car bomb near Moscow, an innocent war victim.
The comment prompted Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to invite the Vatican’s ambassador to Kyiv to the protest, saying the pope’s words were “unfair” and “broke Ukraine’s heart”.
Additional reporting by Ron Popeski; Edited by Tomasz Janowski and Alex Richardson
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