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Gerard O’ConnellAugust 07, 2023
Pope Francis greets Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a private audience at the Vatican Feb. 8, 2020. (CNS photo/Gregorio Borgia, pool via Reuters) 

“Pope Francis supports us,” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an interview with a group of Latin American journalists in Kyiv on Aug. 6. He identified some of the ways the Argentine pope is assisting the country now suffering the consequences of 529 days of war and expressed again the wish that Francis would visit the country.

He spoke about the pope in response to a question from Elisabetta Piqué, my wife, who is the Rome correspondent for La Nación, the leading Argentine daily, a biographer of Pope Francis and a war correspondent who has spent more than 100 days reporting on the war in Ukraine.

Ms. Piqué began by saying that it is known that Pope Francis and the Vatican are working with Ukraine on two specific areas: the return of an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian children whom the Russians have forcibly taken to Russia and prisoner exchanges. She asked President Zelensky: “What more do you think Pope Francis could do? Do you continue hoping that he will make a visit to Ukraine?” She also asked: “How do you evaluate the mission of Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, undertaken at the will of the pope, who was in Kyiv, Moscow and Washington, D.C., and will now go to Beijing?”

President Zelensky responded: “I have had two [face-to-face] meetings with Pope Francis, and other members of the government have met him, too. I am most grateful to him for these encounters. He is helping us!”

“I have had two [face-to-face] meetings with Pope Francis, and other members of the government have met him, too. I am most grateful to him for these encounters. He is helping us!”

“He prays for us,” the Ukrainian president said. “That is also a help because there are many Catholics here who are grateful to him for this. Moreover, these are important signals not only for the Catholics but also for the atheists [in the country] because he is an important person.”

“We invite him to Ukraine,” the president added. “We have invited him. And I personally have invited him to Ukraine.” Recognizing the mobility problems that Francis has, he said, “I would like that he could come to whatever city, not necessarily the capital, to whichever he can come, because also in other cities there are other important questions to be dealt with. Yes, there are difficulties regarding transport and so on because of the war. But [the visit] is always important, these are always important signals for Ukrainian society.”

“This is also true,” he said, “for the questions I raised in conversation with the pope [regarding] the support of his team, and also [of] Cardinal Zuppi, the peace plan, the [peace] summit as such in general terms, and to be present in some way, in some form.”

“As regards the return of the children and of the prisoners,” he said, “the pope told me he will continue doing everything for this.”

“There is tiredness in our eyes,” President Zelensky said, “but there is fear in their eyes.” 

“I think all that is sufficient,” President Zelensky said in his response to the question “what more could the pope do to help Ukraine?” Indeed, he said: “If he managed to help us with the return of the children [abducted to Russia], that would be sufficient. If he can manage to come to Ukraine, [it would be] even better. But if we have to choose, we would choose the return of the deported children.”

Ms. Piqué was one of a small group of journalists from different Latin American countries who were granted a one-hour long interview with President Zelensky in a room of the presidential complex in Kyiv under tight security; each could ask one question. Apart from the question about Pope Francis, other questions raised included: Why most Latin American countries condemn the Russian invasion but do little to help Ukraine; President Putin’s influence in Latin America; the role of Brazil’s president Lula da Silva; was Ukraine’s wish to join NATO at the heart of the war; and the seemingly slow advance of the Ukrainian counter-offensive.

Responding to a question regarding the slow advance of Ukraine’s counter-offensive, President Zelensky said, “This is war,” and there are “many complications” including lack of weapons, but it is important to understand that “Ukraine is on the offensive, not in retreat.”

“There is tiredness in our eyes,” he said, “but there is fear in their eyes.” He expressed confidence that Ukraine will win the war.

Notwithstanding the pressure he is under as leader of a country at war now in its 77th week, Ms. Piqué said the 45-year-old President Zelensky appeared “relaxed, humble, even smiling” during the hour-long interview, at the end of which she presented him with her book, just published, Cien Días in Ucrania, in which she reports on the 100 days that she spent in Ukraine covering the war from its very first day.

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