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Pope pushes Putin to work for peace in eastern Ukraine

Pope Francis meets Russian president Vladimir Putin in a private audience at the Vatican. Below, Ukrainians gather for the Pope's general audience (AP/CNS photos)

Pope Francis has appealed to Russian president Vladimir Putin to work for peace in a meeting at the Vatican yesterday.

According to a statement from the Vatican spokesman Fr Frederico Lombardi: “The meeting was dedicated principally to the conflict in Ukraine and to the situation in the Middle East.”

Fr Lombardi continued: “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.”

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.

Pope Francis and Putin spoke privately, aided by interpreters, for 50 minutes before the Russian president introduced the members of his entourage, including foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

The “serious humanitarian situation” in eastern Ukraine was also discussed, the spokesman said, as was 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, there were widespread reports that Russia not only was 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 the fighting has not stopped.

A recent 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. This is a conservative estimate and the actual numbers could be considerably higher.”

Fr 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 Pope Francis a cushion embroidered with gold thread; the design was of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which Putin explained had been “destroyed in the Soviet era”, but has been rebuilt.

Ukrainians attend Pope Francis' general audience in St. Peter's Square

Pope Francis gave Putin a medallion of the “‘Angel of Peace,’ who,” he said, “defeats all wars and speaks of solidarity among peoples”.

The Pope 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, geopolitical and social reflections”.

Ukrainian Catholic Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych told reporters on Tuesday that he had written to Pope Francis ahead of the meeting, asking him to “be the voice of the Ukrainian people, its children, all the Catholic believers in Ukraine who suffer”.

Until now “no one – neither diplomacy nor the systems of international security nor the leaders of this world – have been able to stop the war,” he said. “We are hopeful that the Pope can do what has been impossible.”