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Moscow visit had humanitarian, not political, aims, says cardinal

07 July 2023


Cardinal Matteo Zuppi in Moscow, on Tuesday

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi in Moscow, on Tuesday

CARDINAL Matteo Zuppi, who visited Moscow on the Pope’s behalf in an effort to end the war in Ukraine, has insisted that his purpose was purely humanitarian, and denied offering mediation or a “peace plan”.

“Dialogue is a canvas that can be woven in different ways — it’s necessary to encourage many initiatives to re-weave the delicate lace of peace,” Cardinal Zuppi, President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, said. “We are interested in humanitarian causes and the protection of innocent lives. But there is no peace plan and no mediation, only a great desire for the violence to stop.”

Speaking at a conference on Sunday evening, before briefing the Pope on his three-day visit, Cardinal Zuppi said that he was aware that responsibility for the war could not be “confused” between aggressor and victim, but believed that a “real peace” could still be secured, based “first of all on co-existence”.

The Austrian Roman Catholic news agency Kathpress reported, however, that the Cardinal had been criticised for claiming “fruitful meetings” and “smilingly shaking hands with a war criminal”; and senior Ukrainian Orthodox priest and theologian accused him of reflecting “an anti-American ideology”.

“The peace plan was actually there, but it was rejected in Moscow; so the Cardinal has now been forced to narrow his mission to humanitarian aid,” Professor Cyril Hovorun, of the St Ignatius Theological Academy, Stockholm, said this week in a post on Facebook. “On a good note, there’s a chance the Vatican’s humanitarian mission could be accomplished at least partially, with the possible return home of at least one Ukrainian child.”

Although Cardinal Zuppi denied meeting President Putin and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, he held talks with Russia’s presidential commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, who is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court for deporting Ukrainian children.

He also had two encounters with a former Russian ambassador to the United States, Yuri Ushanov, now President Putin’s foreign-affairs adviser, and met Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Antony (Sevryuk), the Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign-relations director.

In a communiqué last Friday, the Vatican said that the results of the visit would be made known to the Pope, “with a view to further steps both at humanitarian level and in searching for pathways of peace”.

A statement from the Moscow Patriarchate said that Cardinal Zuppi had been “charged by Pope Francis” to come to Russia “on a special peacemaking mission”, drawing on a long “experience of interaction” between the RC and Russian Churches.

Patriarch Kirill, it said, had informed the Vatican delegation about Kyiv’s current “persecution” of the “canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church”, and had urged “common efforts” by the Russian Orthodox and RC Churches to “prevent the negative development of political conditions”.

Patriarch Kirill told the Italian cardinal: “If countries and peoples understand each other, then a realpolitik can be built taking their interests into account. The suffering of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples deeply wounds my heart — and, for this reason, we have raised up ardent prayers for peace in Ukraine since 2014. We have used and will use all means to end this terrible conflict as soon as possible so there can be as few victims as possible.”

The exchanges took place as Ukrainian forces pressed on with a counter-offensive to recapture occupied territories, and as Kyiv and Kharkiv came under fresh attack from Russian missiles and drones.

On Wednesday, Russia’s Kursk and Belgorod regions were also reported to have come under fire from Ukraine. On the same day, a prominent Ukrainian writer and human-rights campaigner, Victoria Amelina, who died from injuries, aged 39, after last week’s Russian missile attack on a packed restaurant in Kramatorsk (Comment), was buried in the Lychakiv cemetery in Lviv.

The Russian news agency TASS reported that a Russian Orthodox delegation had been barred from attending the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy in Greece. And the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, welcomed the opening on Monday of an international centre at The Hague for investigating Russia’s “crime of aggression” against Ukraine.

Preaching last week in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Moscow, Cardinal Zuppi said that he had entrusted his Russian visit to the Virgin Mary, “so her tenderness for wounded and suffering humanity will help us to seek the path of peace with intelligence and courage, creativity and trust”.

He said that his Church was “not naïve”, but “makes adversity an opportunity for love” and “weaves a web of peace and fraternity torn apart by violence, hatred, and distrust”.

A spokesman for the Kremlin, Dmitri Peskov, told TASS, however, that he saw “no conditions for resolving the situation in Ukraine by political and diplomatic means”, and that Russia would continue its “special military operation”.

In a national message on Monday, the Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, thanked the Pope for sending his Papal Almoner, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, last week on a separate 2000-mile aid mission to Kherson, Mykolaiv, Odessa, and other Ukrainian cities, but made no mention of Cardinal Zuppi’s Moscow visit.

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