Pope Francis makes a point with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a private meeting at the Vatican June 10.

CNS PHOTO | MARIA GRAZIA PICCIARELLA

Pope Francis makes a point with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a private meeting at the Vatican June 10.

June 29, 2015
CINDY WOODEN
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

When Pope Francis met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Vatican June 10, the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine was the principal topic of their conversation.

Putin arrived at the Vatican more than an hour late, beating the 45-minute tardiness he chalked up in November 2013, the last time he visited the pope.

The pope and Putin spoke privately, aided by interpreters, for 50 minutes before the Russian president introduced members of his entourage.

"The meeting was dedicated principally to the conflict in Ukraine and to the situation in the Middle East," said Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi.

"The Holy Father affirmed the need for a commitment to a sincere and serious effort to reach peace and there was agreement on the importance of restoring a climate of dialogue" and on adhering to the promises made in the ceasefire agreement, Lombardi said.

He added that the "serious humanitarian situation" in eastern Ukraine also was discussed, plus the need to assure humanitarian workers have access to the region.

Dozens of Ukrainians attended the pope's general audience earlier in the morning, waving blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags and holding up a sign saying, "Holy Father, Pray for Ukraine."

In March 2014, Russia annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine and about a month later fighting began along Ukraine's eastern border with Russia. Although Putin denied it, widespread reports say Russia is not only supporting separatists in the region, but that Russian troops had crossed into Ukraine.

Hostilities reportedly have eased since an internationally mediated ceasefire agreement was signed in mid-February, but fighting has not stopped.

HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT

A report from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said, "Between mid-April 2014 and May 30, 2015, at least 6,417 people, including at least 626 women and girls, have been documented as killed and 15,962 as wounded in the conflict zone of eastern Ukraine."

Lombardi said the pope and Putin also spoke about the continuing crises in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Iraq, and the need for the international community to find ways to promote peace and protect "all components of society, including religious minorities, especially Christians."

Exchanging gifts, Putin gave Francis a cushion embroidered with gold thread; the design was of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which Putin explained had been "destroyed in the Soviet era," but has been rebuilt.

The pope gave Putin a medallion of the Angel of Peace, who, he said, "defeats all wars and speaks of solidarity among peoples."

THE JOY OF THE GOSPEL

Francis also gave the Russian president a copy of the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), which the pope said, "has many religious, human, geo-political and social reflections."

Ukrainian Catholic Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych told reporters he had written to the pope ahead of the meeting, asking him to "be the voice of the Ukrainian people, its children, all the Catholic believers in Ukraine who suffer."