Zelenskyy seeks Pope’s support for peace

ROME — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had private talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Saturday, May 13, 2023, later saying he sought support for Ukraine’s peace plan from the pontiff, who in the past has offered to try to help end the full-scale war launched by Russia a year ago.

Zelenskyy held his hand over his heart and said it was a “great honor” to meet with the pope. Francis, using a cane for his knee problem, came to greet the Ukrainian president before ushering him into a papal studio near the Vatican’s audience hall.

In a tweet after the 40-minute audience, Zelenskyy expressed gratitude to Francis for “his personal attention to the tragedy of millions of Ukrainians.” He said he spoke with the pontiff “about the tens of thousands of deported (Ukrainian) children. We must make every effort to return them home.”

Last month, Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, asked the pope to help get children returned from Russia to Ukraine. But the Vatican’s statement Saturday made no mention of the request.

Instead, the Vatican said the two men spoke about Ukraine’s “humanitarian and political situation provoked by the ongoing war.”

“The pope assured his constant prayer, paid witness to by his many public appeals and by his continued invoking of the Lord for peace, since February of last year,” the Vatican said, a reference to the Russian invasion that began Feb. 24, 2022.

The meeting came as Russia’s defense ministry said Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles delivered to Ukraine by the United Kingdom this week damaged unspecified civilian enterprises in Luhansk province in Ukraine’s far east.

Luhansk authorities separately said another missile strike hit the regional capital, wounding an elderly woman.

The causes of the crashes were not immediately disclosed, but concern in Bryansk is growing about cross-border attacks from Ukraine.

“I also talked about our Peace Formula as the only effective algorithm for achieving a just peace,’’ Zelenskyy said. Later, in an interview on Italian state TV, the Ukrainian leader said the pope “knows my position. The war is in Ukraine, which is why it has to be Ukraine’s plan” to bring peace.

At the end of April, Francis told reporters that the Vatican was involved in a behind-the-scene peace mission but gave no details. Neither Russia nor Ukraine has confirmed such an initiative.

He has said he would like to go to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, if such a visit could be coupled with one to Moscow, in hopes a papal pilgrimage could further the cause of peace.

There has been speculation about whether the Vatican could play some mediating role. But in the Italian TV interview on Saturday, Zelenskyy indicated mediation in general would be impossible. “You can’t mediate with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin,’’ he said. / AP