Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal on Thursday invited Pope Francis to visit his country, during a meeting at the Vatican, where he also asked for help to return children forcibly taken to Russia.

“I invited His Holiness to visit Ukraine in person,” Shmyhal told reporters at the Foreign Press Association in Rome a few hours after the papal audience.

He said he had discussed with the 86-year-old pope the peace plan proposed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to end the war sparked by Russia’s invasion last year.

This included “discussing in a little more detail the different steps the Vatican could take” to help Kyiv achieve its goals, the prime minister said, speaking through an Italian translator.

“For example, I asked for the participation, the assistance from the Vatican, from His Holiness, for the return to Ukraine of children, some of whom were orphaned, who were taken away by force, mainly to Russia.”

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More than 16,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia since the February 2022 invasion, according to Kyiv, with many allegedly placed in institutions and foster homes.

Russia denies the allegations, saying instead it has saved Ukrainian children from the horrors of the war.

In March, the International Criminal Court in The Hague announced an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin over the war crime accusation of unlawfully deporting Ukrainian children.

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Shmyhal also met two of the pope’s top officials at the Vatican, Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and the de facto foreign minister, Paul Gallagher.

“During the cordial discussions, which took place in the Secretariat of State, various matters connected to the war in Ukraine were highlighted, with particular attention to the humanitarian aspects and efforts to restore peace,” a Vatican statement said.

“In the same context, several issues regarding the life and activity of the Church in the country were raised.”

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Francis has repeatedly called for peace in Ukraine, although the Vatican’s attempts to mediate in the conflict have yet to yield any results.

Shmyhal was in Rome for a conference Wednesday on how Italian businesses could help with the reconstruction of Ukraine, when he also met with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

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