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Pope Francis meets with Ivan Soltanovsky, the new Russian ambassador to the Holy See, at the Vatican Sept. 18, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Russia’s new ambassador to the Vatican met Monday with Pope Francis for a protocol visit, as signs emerged that the Vatican’s Ukraine peace envoy could soon be undertaking a second mission to Moscow.

The Vatican said Ambassador Ivan Soltanovsky was presenting his credentials to Francis, signaling the official start of his term. His motorcade was seen leaving the Russian embassy Monday morning, bound for the Vatican, and returning about two hours later.

Soltanovsky replaced Ambassador Alexander Avdeev, whom Francis met with on Feb. 25, 2022 in a remarkable in-person papal visit to the embassy the day after Moscow’s forces invaded Ukraine.

The credential presentation appointment comes after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in recent days that Moscow was ready to meet again with Francis’ Ukraine peace envoy, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, a veteran of the Catholic Church’s peace initiatives.

“The Vatican is continuing its efforts. The papal envoy will come back (to Russia) soon,” Lavrov said Sept. 15 at a roundtable discussion on Ukraine.

Since Zuppi was appointed in May, he has visited Kyiv, Moscow, Washington and Beijing. Initially his mandate appeared limited to measures to try to reunite Ukrainian children taken to Russia after Moscow’s invasion. But during his meeting last week in Beijing with Li Hui, China’s special representative for Eurasian affairs, the resumption of stalled grain exports from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports was also discussed.

“The Vatican is continuing its efforts. The papal envoy will come back (to Russia) soon,” Lavrov said Sept. 15 at a roundtable discussion on Ukraine.

Upon his return to Italy, Zuppi said the Beijing meeting represented an important exchange of ideas and he also voiced optimism at Lavrov’s “positive” opening to a second visit. During his first trip to Moscow in June, Zuppi met with Russia’s minister for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, and an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant in late March for Lvova-Belova and Putin, accusing them of abducting children from Ukraine. Russian officials have denied any forced adoptions, saying some Ukrainian children are in foster care.

Zuppi told the TG2000 broadcaster of the Italian bishops conference this weekend that Lavrov’s openness to a second meeting was “important because peace is made through dialogue and finding the possible and necessary spaces. It’s certainly a positive declaration and goes in the direction hoped for by Pope Francis.”

Francis has followed the Holy See’s tradition of neutrality in conflicts by trying to keep open paths of dialogue with both Ukraine and Russia. His stance, and admiration for Russia's imperial past and culture, has at times angered Ukraine, especially its Greek Catholic flock.

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