Pope Francis will meet Russian president Vladimir Putin next Wednesday at a time when the war in eastern Ukraine is intensifying.
The visit, confirmed by papal spokesman, Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, will be the pontiff’s second meeting with the Russia leader, the first having taking place in November 2013.
Since then, however, war has broken out in eastern Ukraine over the disputed Donbass region, with Russian forces widely suspected of assisting in aiding rebel forces in the neighbouring country. Russia has also annexed the Ukrainian province of Crimea, with allegations of intimidation and violence against its small Catholic minority.
The Holy Father has appealed numerous times for peace in the country, where the deathtoll since January last year has now surpassed 6,500, with over 1,100,000 Ukrainians internally displaced and three-quarters of a million exiled.
At Easter the Pope appealed for people in the Ukraine to “rediscover peace and hope thanks to the commitment of all interested parties.” However the Holy Father’s decision to not mention Russia was greeted with disappointment by Ukrainian Catholics, who form a minority in the country, largest in the west. Many hope he will raise it next week.
On Wednesday the Russian rebels, aided by troops in Russian Army uniforms, launched a major offensive in the region.