Pope Francis said Monday, Sept. 4, that he was referring to Russia's rich cultural tradition when he spoke of a "great Russia" in a speech last month, comments that sparked outrage in Ukraine.
In a video message to young Catholic Russians on August 25, the 86-year-old pontiff said they should remember they were "children of great Russia, of great saints, of kings, of Peter the Great, of Catherine II, of a Russian people of great culture and great humanity".
Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko described the unscripted remarks as reminiscent of "imperialist propaganda" and "very unfortunate".
"I wasn't thinking about imperialism when I said that, I was talking about culture," Pope Francis told reporters on the papal plane following a trip to Mongolia.
He said his message was for the students to "embrace their heritage."
"Russian culture is one of great beauty and depth and doesn't get negated over political problems," he said. "They had dark political years, but the heritage has always remained."
Pope Francis regularly calls for peace in Ukraine, although in the early months after Russia's February 2022 invasion he drew criticism for not naming Moscow as the aggressor.
He appointed a top cardinal earlier this year to try to broker peace, who has since visited both Moscow and Kyiv.
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