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Russian incumbent President Vladimir Putin, who was declared winner of the March 15-17, 2024, presidential election by the country's electoral commission, is seen on screens on the stage as he attends a March 18 rally in Red Square in central Moscow marking the 10th anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. (OSV News photo/Reuters)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis has not accepted an invitation to travel to Moscow in June to meet with Vladimir Putin, the director of the Holy See press office said.

A report on the website of Intelligence Online, a French journal, “does not correspond to the truth,” Matteo Bruni told reporters March 20.

A story on the website March 19 had said Ivan Soltanovsky, the Russian ambassador to the Holy See, invited the pope to meet Vladimir Putin in Moscow in June, “an invitation that the pope accepted,” Intelligence Online had reported.

The journal said the pope, who repeatedly has been invited to visit Ukraine, would travel to Kyiv immediately after visiting Moscow.

After Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Pope Francis said he would be willing to accept the invitation of the Ukrainian government to visit, but only if he could visit Moscow as well.

Earlier the Russian news agency RIA Novosti had reported that Pope Francis had congratulated Putin on his victory in the presidential election March 17, an election Western observers described as rigged. Bruni had told Catholic News Service March 18 that the report was not true.

The Vatican has repeatedly offered to act as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia, and last year Pope Francis sent his peace envoy for Ukraine, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, to Kyiv, Moscow, Washington and Beijing to meet with foreign leaders and advance peace talks on Ukraine.

In early March, however, the pope caused consternation when segments of an interview were released in which he said Russia and Ukraine need to have the “courage of the white flag” to halt the fighting and negotiate.

The phrase “white flag” usually refers to surrendering, and Ukrainian leaders were outraged.

Pope Francis was not asking Ukraine to consider surrendering to Russia when he called for negotiations to end the war, but he was calling for both Russia and Ukraine to cease hostilities and engage in peace talks, said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state.

At the end of his weekly general audience March 20, praying for peace in Ukraine and in the Holy Land, Pope Francis said, “War is always a defeat.”

“We must make every effort to discuss, to negotiate to end war,” he said. “Let’s pray for this.”

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