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Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 15, 2023
Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, answers reporters' questions during a news conference following the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, Sept. 10, 2023. (CNS photo/Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

As Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, Pope Francis’ special envoy for peace in Ukraine, concluded his three-day visit to Beijing (Sept. 13-15) where he met Li Hui, China’s special representative for Eurasian affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, surprising news came from Moscow.

TASS, a state-owned Russian news agency, reported that Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of the Russian Federation, said that same morning that Moscow was expecting a second visit from Cardinal Zuppi and was ready to receive him to discuss the Ukrainian crisis. Mr. Lavrov did not give a date for the cardinal’s second visit to Moscow.

“The Vatican is continuing its efforts. The papal envoy will come back [to Russia] soon. We are ready to meet with anyone, we are ready to talk with anyone,” TASS quoted Mr. Lavrov as saying during a roundtable discussion on the settlement of the war in Ukraine.

As Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, Pope Francis’ special envoy for peace in Ukraine, concluded his three-day visit to Beijing, surprising news came from Moscow.

The previous day, Sept. 14, the Vatican issued a statement that said Cardinal Zuppi met with the Chinese special representative in an “open and cordial atmosphere” and that they discussed “the war in Ukraine and its dramatic consequences, emphasizing the need to combine efforts to encourage dialogue and find paths that lead to peace.” It added that they also addressed the problem of food safety “with the hope that the export of grain can soon be guaranteed, especially to the countries most at risk.”

Cardinal Zuppi traveled by plane to Beijing, via Istanbul, from Berlin, where he had participated in the annual international meeting for peace organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio, which Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and Italy’s foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, also attended. Ahead of his visit to Beijing, the Vatican issued a statement that said his visit to China “represents another step of the mission desired by the Pope to sustain humanitarian initiatives and to seek paths that may lead to a just peace.”

It was significant, however, that the cardinal and the Chinese representative discussed the U.N.-brokered grain agreement that Russia blocked last month. The agreement would have allowed Ukraine to export its grain through the Black Sea. A recent effort by Turkey to get the agreement back on track failed, much to the dismay of poor countries that depend on Ukraine’s grain exports.

The foreign minister of the Russian Federation said that Moscow was expecting a second visit from Cardinal Zuppi and was ready to receive him to discuss the Ukrainian crisis.

The 67-year-old Italian-born Cardinal Zuppi is archbishop of Bologna and president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference. At Pope Francis’ request, he had already visited Kyiv, June 5-6, where he met President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other representatives of the Ukrainian government as well as religious leaders. Later, he traveled to Moscow, June 28-29, where he was received by Yuri Ushakov, a diplomatic advisor to President Vladimir Putin, and by Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian minister for children; he did not meet the Russian president or the foreign minister but he was received by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a strong supporter of the war. Subsequently, the cardinal went to Washington, July 17-19, and was received by President Joe Biden and state and religious leaders.


Cardinal Zuppi was accompanied by a member of the Vatican’s secretariat of state on all these visits, during which he emphasized not only the humanitarian aspects of the mission regarding the exchange of prisoners and the return to Ukraine of the children that had been deported there by the Russian occupying forces, but also underlined the importance of finding paths that could lead to peace in Ukraine.

Both Cardinal Zuppi and the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, have gone out of their way to emphasize that the papal peace initiative is not an attempt at mediation, since Ukraine has explicitly ruled out such a role for the Vatican. But it is seeking to create a climate where discussions for an end to the conflict become possible.

More: Ukraine / China / Russia

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