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Gerard O’ConnellMarch 10, 2024
Alona Onyshchuk, 39, visits her husband's grave with her daughter, Anhelina, 5, at the Alley of Heroes at a local cemetery in the village of Lozuvatka, Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine, Jan. 22, 2024, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine. (OSV News photo/Alina Smutko, Reuters)

“To negotiate is never a surrender. It is the courage not to carry a country to suicide,” Pope Francis said in an interview with Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS), a French-language Swiss public media outlet, in which the pope again denounced “the folly of war” in a conversation that covered both the war in Gaza and the war in Ukraine.

The pope encouraged Ukraine to seek to negotiate an end to the war with Russia, in comments that were criticized by several prominent Ukrainian voices and that prompted a clarifying statement from the Holy See Press Office on Saturday, March 9.

The interview was conducted in the Vatican on Feb. 2 and was scheduled to be aired on March 20 at the launch of a new R.T.S. cultural program. The news outlet, however, sent transcripts of the interview to ANSA, the Italian news agency, and to Reuters on Saturday, March 9. Soon after, the Vatican published the full transcript in Italian.

The interview began with a question asking how one can find a compass to guide one in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We have to go forward,” Francis responded. “Every day at 7:00 p.m. I phone the [Holy Family] parish in Gaza. Six hundred people are living there, and they tell [me] what they see. It is a war,” he said, referring to both the “military war” and the “guerilla war” of Hamas, “which is a movement that is not an army."

He added, “It takes two to make war, not one” and denounced as “irresponsible” those on both sides who are conducting that war.

When the Swiss interviewer, Lorenzo Buccella, said one should not lose the hope of mediation, Francis replied, “Let us look at history, all wars that we have lived, all have ended with an accord.”

Mr. Buccella noted, “Some in Ukraine ask for the courage to surrender, to raise the white flag, while others say this would legitimize the stronger one,” referring to Russia. He asked for the pope’s opinion on this.

Pope Francis replied:

That is one interpretation. But I believe that the ‘stronger one’ is the one who sees the situation, who thinks of the people, who has the courage of the white flag, to negotiate. And today, negotiations are possible with the help of international powers. The word ‘negotiate’ is a courageous word. When you see that you are defeated, that things are not going well, it is necessary to have the courage to negotiate. You may feel ashamed, but with how many deaths will it end? Negotiate in time; look for some country that can mediate. Today, for example in the war in Ukraine, there are many who want to mediate. Turkey has offered itself for this. And others. Do not be ashamed to negotiate before things get worse.

Concerns over the ‘white flag’ comment

These remarks—in particular the pope’s words on the “courage of the white flag”—garnered strong negative reactions from Ukrainians, including from the Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See, Andriy Yurash. He asked on X on Saturday whether anyone had seriously discussed peace with Hitler during the Second World War and waved the white flag to pacify him. Referring to Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Yurash added that the lesson from history is: "If we want to end the war, we must do everything we can to slay the dragon!"

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmitro Kuleba, said on Sunday that Ukraine will “never” raise the white flag to negotiate with Russia, and criticized the pope’s remarks for asking to do just this. “Our flag is a yellow and blue one. This is the flag by which we live, die, and prevail. We shall never raise any other flags.,” he wrote on X. “The strongest is the one who, in the battle between good and evil, stands on the side of good rather than attempting to put them on the same footing and call it ‘negotiations.’”

Ukrainian human rights activist Oleksandra Matviychuk said capitulation would mean Russian occupation for Ukraine. "Occupation is just another form of war," she added. She is the chairwoman of the Kiev Centre for Civil Liberties, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022. “Occupation” means "torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, rejection of one's own identity, forced adoption of one's own children, filtration camps and mass graves," she said. Olena Halushka, the co-founder of the International Centre for Ukrainian Victory, an association of Ukrainian NGOs, wrote on X: "The Pope should finally have the courage to condemn an aggressor instead of accusing the victim of resisting genocide."

Since some have misinterpreted the pope’s words to suggest that Ukraine should surrender, a senior Vatican official (who did not wish to be named because of the position he holds) told America that the pope “has long been concerned at the loss of life and the injuries being sustained by Ukraine, and believes it is necessary to negotiate [a ceasefire and an end to the war].” He said the pope is not in any way suggesting that Ukraine should surrender. He said the reference to “the white flag” was introduced by the interviewer, but that in the pope’s mind it refers to the protection of negotiations, not surrender.

The Director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, said much the same in a statement published on Vatican Media Saturday. Mr. Bruni said the pope’s position on Ukraine, which he always describes as a “martyred” nation, was fully expressed in his words at the Angelus on Feb. 25, the day after the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

That day, he said, Pope Francis reaffirmed his “deep affection” for the Ukrainian people and invited all parties to “create the conditions for a diplomatic solution in search of a just and lasting peace.”

Mr. Bruni explained that elsewhere in the interview, speaking of another situation of conflict in Israel and Palestine, but also referring to every situation of war, Pope Francis clearly stated: “Negotiations are never a surrender.”

Mr. Bruni said “the pope's words, taken from an image proposed by the interviewer, reiterate, among other things, what has already been stated [by the pope] in these two years of continuous appeals and public statements, namely the importance of dialogue against the ‘madness’ of war and the primary concern for the fate of the civilian population.”

“The Pope's hope," reaffirmed Mr. Bruni, “is and remains that which he has always repeated in these years, and reiterated recently on the occasion of the second anniversary of the conflict: ‘As I renew my very deep affection for the martyred Ukrainian people and pray for all, especially for the many innocent victims, I implore that a little bit of humanity can be found that allows the creation of the conditions for a diplomatic solution in search of a just and lasting peace.’”

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