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Russia hits pope's comments on Ukraine war

The Manila Times logo The Manila Times 30/11/2022 Associated Press
PRAYING FOR PEACE Pope Francis delivers his blessing during a meeting with members of the Italian Schools for Peace Network in the Pope Paul 6th hall at the Vatican, Monday, Nov. 28, 2022. AP PHOTO © Provided by The Manila Times PRAYING FOR PEACE Pope Francis delivers his blessing during a meeting with members of the Italian Schools for Peace Network in the Pope Paul 6th hall at the Vatican, Monday, Nov. 28, 2022. AP PHOTO

ROME: Russia has lodged a formal protest with the Vatican over Pope Francis' latest condemnation of atrocities in Ukraine, in which the pontiff blamed most of the cruelty on Chechens and other minorities in an apparent effort to spare ethnic Russian troops from criticism.

The Kremlin's ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeev, told the Moscow-run news agency RIA Novosti that he met with a Vatican official on Monday to express his "indignation" about Francis' comments, which were contained in an interview with the Jesuit magazine America that was published that day.

In his comments, Francis defended his usual reluctance to call out Russian President Vladimir Putin by name, saying it was clear Ukraine is the "martyred" victim in the war. But he also said that, while it was the Russian state that invaded Ukraine, "generally, the cruelest are perhaps those who are of Russia, but are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryats and so on."

The pope's apparent distinction between the mostly Muslim Chechens and Buddhist Buryats on the one hand, and ethnic Russian fighters on the other, irked Moscow.

"I expressed indignation at such insinuations and noted that nothing can shake the cohesion and unity of the multinational Russian people," Avdeev was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti.

Throughout the nine-month war, Francis has tried to spare direct condemnation of Moscow for fear of antagonizing the Russian Orthodox Church, which has strongly backed Putin's invasion on religious grounds. The Argentine-born pontiff previously blamed "mercenaries" for the atrocities being committed in Ukraine, drawing criticism from Kyiv.

In the new comments, Francis was clearly trying to draw a line between those who follow "the Russian tradition" and allegedly more brutal Chechens and Buryats, when in fact Russian troops have been accused of war crimes, regardless of their ethnicity.

While it wasn't entirely clear what Francis meant by people who follow the "Russian tradition," it could be a reference to the predominantly Russian Orthodox Christian roots of an estimated 68 percent of the population.

The RIA report also cited the regional leader of Buryatia, Alexey Tsydenov, as describing the pope's remarks as "at least strange." Buryatia, a Siberian republic that forms part of Russia, is home to indigenous Buryat Mongolians, who were reported to be disproportionally targeted by Moscow's mobilization efforts alongside other minorities.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of predominantly Muslim Chechnya, has been one of the most outspoken supporters of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, though fighters from the southern Russian republic have participated on both sides in the war. Pro-Kyiv volunteers, for example, have named their grouping after a late leader who headed Chechnya's drive for independence from Moscow.

The latest dustup over Francis' comments comes as the Holy See tries to play a mediating role in the conflict. Francis and the Vatican secretariat of state have made repeated offers to try to facilitate peace talks, to no avail.

Asked about the latest offer on Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow appreciated the gesture, but he noted that Ukraine had refused to hold talks.

The Vatican has a tradition of not taking sides in conflicts, believing it can be a more effective peacemaker with behind-the-scenes diplomacy. And Francis has tried to balance his rhetoric, expressing solidarity with the "martyred" people of Ukraine while also seemingly acknowledging Kremlin complaints about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization "barking at its gates" by its eastward expansion.

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