Vatican's top diplomat says Russia and Ukraine must negotiate

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, said that Pope Francis' appeal for negotiations in Ukraine were not a call for surrender.

Vatican's top diplomat says Russia and Ukraine must negotiate

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, is seen in a file photo from Oct. 6, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis was not asking Ukraine to consider surrendering to Russia when he called for negotiations to end the war, but he was calling for both Russia and Ukraine to cease hostilities and engage in peace talks, the Vatican's top diplomat said.

It's "obvious" that creating the conditions for a diplomatic resolution to the war in Ukraine "is not only up to one side, but to both sides," Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, said in an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published March 12. The first step toward reaching peace, he added, is "to put an end to the aggression."

The responsibility for ceasing hostilities in Ukraine falls "first and foremost to the aggressor," he said without explicitly naming Russia. Only then, he said, can negotiations begin.

"The Holy Father explains that to negotiate is not weakness, but strength. It is not surrender, but courage," he said.

The cardinal's comments came after the release March 9 of portion of an interview in which Pope Francis said that the warring sides in Ukraine must have "the courage of the white flag" -- a term typically associated with surrender but which the Vatican said was intended to mean an openness to negotiations.

People hold up a Ukrainian flag at the pope's general audience.
People hold up a Ukrainian flag after Pope Francis solicits prayers for peace in the country during his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican in this Aug. 23, 2023, file photo. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Ukrainian civil and church leaders spoke out in response to the pope's comments. Without directly mentioning Pope Francis, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address March 10 praised church leaders who were on the frontline supporting Ukraine's defense and "not two and a half thousand kilometers away somewhere virtually mediating between someone who wants to live and someone who wants to destroy you."

In a March 10 post on X, Ukraine's foreign minister said the pope's call for negotiations appeared to put good and evil "on the same footing," and the bishops of the Permanent Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church released a statement in which they said that "with Putin there will be no negotiations."

The Ukrainian Embassy to the Holy See said on X March 11 that the Vatican nuncio to Ukraine, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, had been called to the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs following the pope's comments, which had "disappointed" Ukraine.

Instead of appeals appearing to legalize "the right of the strongest and encouraging him to neglect the norms of the international law," the foreign ministry said in its statement, the pope should be encouraging the international community to unite "to ensure the victory of good over evil."

The ministry also said the pope should be addressing his appeals "to the aggressor, not to the victim."

While noting that the risk of the use of nuclear weapons is real -- and something Russian officials have threatened more than once -- Cardinal Parolin said that the Holy See is more fundamentally concerned about the warring sides becoming "increasingly closed in on their own interests (and) not doing what they can to reach a just and stable peace."


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