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Gerard O’ConnellMarch 11, 2023
Pope Francis makes the sign of the cross as he begins his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 8, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis was asked in an interview whether what Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine could be considered genocide. While the pope responded that genocide is a technical term that requires study before declaring it as such, he did not reject the possibility.

The question about the war in Ukraine was put to the pope by Elisabetta Piqué, my wife and the Italian correspondent for La Nacion, the leading Argentine daily newspaper. Ms. Piqué has already spent almost 100 days covering the war and returned just last week from her third extended period of reporting there.

“I saw with my own eyes the devastation; schools, hospitals, people’s houses razed to the ground, villages that no longer exist. As you know I was in the Donbass this time,” Ms. Piqué told the pope. I saw “mass graves,” she added. “And not only my Greek-Catholic friends speak of genocide. In fact, everyone is a target, women, children. One can clearly see the intent of the Russians to cancel, to exterminate a people; because they bomb schools, the culture, theaters, to exterminate the Ukrainian people. You speak every Sunday and Wednesday about “a martyred people.” My question is: “Can we also talk about genocide?”

“The word genocide is certainly a technical term,” Francis said in reply. “For example, in the case of the Armenians there was much discussion, until it was certified that this was genocide. Technically, I would not know how to define it. But clearly when schools are bombed, when hospitals are bombed, when shelters are bombed, the impression is not to occupy a place but to destroy.”

The pope continued. “War has a series of ethical rules.” But, he added. “I do not like to speak of the ethics of war because there is a contradiction in the term.” Still, he said, “Let us go on, it is a way of proceeding. No?”

He recalled that his grandfather, who had fought in the River Piave battles in World War I, told him that the Austrians stopped fighting at six o’clock in the evening, and since there were no borders or trenches then, they—and the Italians—would cross over to the other side to exchange cigarettes. His grandfather told him they would receive orders from lower ranking officers to shoot into the air. “And, sometimes, in the afternoon meeting with the enemy they would say 'tomorrow a general is coming, be in the trenches because we are going to have to shoot straight',” Francis remarked. “That was the ethic of that period, to try to save the person. But when I see what happens today, that they kill not only the professional soldiers of the war, but also the innocent victims, it worries me deeply. And so, to return to your question. I don’t know if this is genocide or not, it must be studied, people have to define it well. Certainly, this is not the ethic of war to which we have been accustomed.”

Ms. Piqué recalled that in two recent interviews Francis had described Mr. Putin as “a cultured person.” Can such a person, she asked, “be behind the war crimes we have seen in one year? Yesterday, [the Russians] launched 81 missiles, including hypersonic ones against the civilian population [in Ukraine].”

Mr. Putin, “is cultured,” the pope replied. “He visited me three times as head of state, and one could have a conversation at a high level with him. We spoke about literature once. He is a man who not only speaks Russian. He speaks German fluently and he speaks English. He is educated. Culture is something one acquires, it is not a moral categorization. [Spanish: “una profesión moral”]. These are two different things.”

The pope confirmed that he has not had direct contact with Mr. Putin since the Russian president phoned him for his 85th birthday in 2021, months before Russia began its invasion. The pope recalled his visit to the Russian embassy to the Holy See the day after the invasion began when he explicitly asked the ambassador to convey to Mr. Putin his readiness to visit Moscow. At the time, the pope said, he only got a reply from Mr. Lavrov, the foreign minister, thanking him for his message but saying this was not the moment for such a visit.

Ms. Piqué noted that that the Vatican has a peace plan, according to remarks made by Mr. Leonid Sevastianov, the president of the World Council of Russian Old Believers, who is said to be a friend of Mr. Putin and of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. So, Ms. Piqué asked the pope, “Does the Vatican have a peace plan?” To which, Francis replied, “a peace plan, no! But it has a service for peace.” The pope did not elaborate, “for reasons of discretion,” he said, but did note that “there are several heads of state who are concerned, right?”

Pressed by Ms. Piqué on what this “service for peace” might be, Francis clarified. “It is a desire to be at the service of peace,” he said. “Modi,” the prime minister of India, “is very concerned, and he is a balanced man who could well call for dialogue between the two parties. That’s an example. There are other heads of state too… and work is going on under the table.”

Pope Francis went on to note that he has “an excellent” relationship with the Russian ambassador to the Holy See. “The son of a Ukrainian mother, Russian father, he knows the conflict well,” the pope said of the ambassador. “He is a very serious, professional man, it is possible to have a dialogue. And as long as dialogue is possible, we are moving forward.”

Asked if a meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Zelenskyy is likely to take place at the Vatican, Francis said, “That much, I don’t know,” but he added “a meeting of global delegates on this question is plausible.” He suggested that if many people came together then something could happen.

Francis confirmed that since war broke out he had spoken twice with Mr. Zelenskyy on the phone and that his wife had planned a visit to the Vatican but had to postpone it because of the latest bombings in Ukraine.

Ms. Piqué asked if, like the Good Samaritan who helped the man who was injured, Francis could visit Kyiv in the same light, to console the people there?. The pope replied. “I want to go to Kyiv. But on the condition of going to Moscow. I go to both places or to neither.”

Ms. Piqué challenged the pope’s willingness to visit Russia. “It is impossible to go to Moscow,” she said. “It is not impossible,” the pope replied. “I do not say it is possible, but it is not impossible. We hope it can happen.”

When Ms Piqué complimented the pope for his optimism, he added, “The war pains me, that is what I want to say. The war pains me.”

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