Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, the Vatican’s peace envoy, began a visit to Russia on June 27 in a first such trip since President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale attack on Ukraine in February 2022.

Zuppi, who is the archbishop of Bologna as well as the President of the Episcopal Conference of Italy, met the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, who has been a vocal supporter of Putin’s war against Ukraine. The Patriarch and the Cardinal discussed the importance of “all the forces of the world uniting to prevent a major armed conflict,” Vatican News reported.

Cardinal Zuppi also met Moscow’s ombudswoman for children’s rights Maria Lvova-Belova, who has been issued an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, along with Putin, for overseeing the abduction of Ukrainian children.

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“We discussed humanitarian issues related to military operations and the protection of children’s rights,” Lvova-Belova said. “I am sure that Christian love and mercy will help in dialogue and mutual understanding.”

According to Ukrainian officials, more than 16,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia since the beginning of the Kremlin’s full-scale attack on Ukraine and many were placed in institutions and foster homes. Such deportation is recognized as constituting an act of genocide.

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Seven warships took part in the six-day drills, as tensions over Russia’s war in Ukraine continue and NATO raises doubts about China’s purported neutrality.

Why would the Pope send someone to meet an accused kidnapper?

On June 6, the day that Russians blew up the Kakhovka dam, Cardinal Zuppi had met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

At the time, Zelensky appealed to the Cardinal to help secure the release of Ukrainian prisoners of war and the return the children deported to Russia.

During their meeting, however, Zelensky insisted that the only peace plan acceptable to Ukraine would be the 10-point plan Ukraine had proposed in 2022.

In response to the Vatican’s attempts at mediation in Moscow, Zelensky’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak said: “Our position is clear, and we have expressed it very openly: we do not need any mediation, and that is because we have had bad experiences. We do not trust Russia.”

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Who is the Pope’s envoy?

Cardinal Zuppi has long been involved with the Community of Sant’Egidio, which has ties to Eastern churches – its headquarters in Rome celebrates mass with the Byzantine liturgy – and prides itself on ecumenism, helping the poor, and conflict resolution.

Zuppi was one of the four mediators of the two-year-long Rome-based peace negotiations that helped end the civil war in Mozambique in 1992. In recognition of his efforts, he was made an honorary citizen of that country.

The Italian Cardinal is seen to be in line with Pope Francis’ views on the Ukraine conflict.

But haven’t the Pope’s views been criticized in Ukraine?

Indeed, Pope Francis’ handling of Russia’s war on Ukraine – bending over backwards to appear neutral and unbiased – has been absolutely skewered in Ukraine.

At Good Friday celebrations in Rome the Vatican was criticized for putting a Russian and Ukrainian together during the Stations of the Cross procession.

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The Pope on several occasions even intimated that NATO bears some responsibility for Moscow’s attack on Ukraine.

In what may be viewed as a concession to Ukrainians, the Vatican has subtly adjusted its language to refer to a “just peace” rather than merely “peace.” This came in the wake of polemics in Italy about how the “peace movement” was actually a “surrender movement” and implicated the Vatican in an effort to reward Russian aggression.

The Vatican statement issued one day before the Moscow trip said that the cardinal’s mission during the two-day visit is to help “find ways to achieve a just peace.”

“The main purpose of the initiative is to encourage gestures of humanity, which can contribute to fostering a solution to the current tragic situation and find ways to achieve a just peace,” it said.

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