Ukraine and allies criticise Pope’s ‘white flag’ comment

Ukrainian and allied officials have criticised Pope Francis for saying Kyiv should have the “courage” to negotiate an end to the war with Russia, a statement many interpreted as a call on Ukraine to surrender.

The foreign minister of Poland, a vocal ally of Kyiv, and Ukraine’s ambassador to the Vatican both used Second World War analogies to condemn the pope’s remarks, while a leader of one of Ukraine’s Christian churches said on Sunday that only the country’s determined resistance to Russia’s aggression had prevented a mass slaughter of civilians.

In an interview recorded last month with Swiss broadcaster RSI and partially released on Saturday, Francis used the phrase “the courage of the white flag” as he argued that Ukraine, facing a possible defeat, should be open to peace talks brokered by international powers.

“How about, for balance, encouraging (Russian President Vladimir) Putin to have the courage to withdraw his army from Ukraine? Peace would immediately ensue without the need for negotiations,” Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski responded with a post on X, formerly Twitter.

In a separate post, Mr Sikorski drew parallels between those calling for negotiations while “denying (Ukraine) the means to defend itself” and European leaders’ “appeasement” of Adolf Hitler just before the Second World War.

Andrii Yurash, Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See, said it is “necessary to learn lessons” from that conflict. His post on X appeared to compare the pope’s comments to calls for “talking with Hitler” while raising “a white flag to satisfy him”.

A Vatican spokesman later clarified that the pope supported “a stop to hostilities (and) a truce achieved with the courage of negotiations”, rather than an outright Ukrainian surrender.

Matteo Bruni said the journalist interviewing Francis used the term “white flag” in the question that prompted the controversial remarks.

“I think that the strongest one is the one who looks at the situation, thinks about the people and has the courage of the white flag, and negotiates,” Francis said, when asked to weigh in on the debate between those who say Ukraine should agree to peace talks and those who argue that any negotiations would legitimise Moscow’s aggression.

Kyiv remains firm on not engaging directly with Russia on peace talks, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said multiple times that the initiative in peace negotiations must come from the country that has been invaded.

Throughout the war, Francis has tried to maintain the Vatican’s traditional diplomatic neutrality, but that has often been accompanied by apparent sympathy with the Russian rationale for invading Ukraine, such as when he noted that Nato was “barking at Russia’s door” with its eastward expansion.

While the pope has spoken in the past about the need for negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow, the RSI interview appears to mark the first time he has publicly used terms such as “white flag” or “defeated” while discussing the war.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visit to Kyiv
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky remains firm on not engaging directly with Russia on peace talks (Clodagh Kilcoyne/PA)

“When you see that you are defeated, that things are not going well, you have to have the courage to negotiate,” he said.

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said on Sunday that surrender is not on the minds of Ukrainians.

“Ukraine is wounded, but unconquered! Ukraine is exhausted, but it stands and will endure,” he said while meeting Ukrainians in New York City.

“Believe me, it never crosses anyone’s mind to surrender. Even where there is fighting today: listen to our people in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Odesa, Kharkiv, Sumy,” he added, referring to the regions that have been under heavy Russian artillery and drone attacks.

Archbishop Shevchuk also spoke of the brutality of Moscow’s aggression, referring to the town near Kyiv where Russian occupation left hundreds of civilians dead in the streets and in mass graves.

He argued that, if not for Ukrainians’ fierce resistance as Russian forces marched on the capital in February 2022, the gruesome scenes seen in Bucha would have been “just an introduction”.

During the Angelus prayer on Sunday from the window overlooking St Peter’s Square, Francis said he was praying “for peace in the tormented Ukraine and in the Holy Land”.

“Let the hostilities which cause immense suffering among the civilian population cease as soon as possible,” he said.

Vatican Pope
Pope Francis waves during the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St Peter’s Square at the Vatican (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

Ukrainian air defences shot down 35 out of 39 drones launched by Russia, air force commander Mykola Oleshchuk reported, following a four-and-a-half-hour barrage that officials said damaged unspecified industrial sites in southern Ukraine and also targeted power stations.

Two people died under rubble after Iranian-made Shahed drones struck private homes and state offices around midnight in Dobropillya, a large Ukrainian-held town in the east, authorities said.

In Myrnohrad, another eastern Ukrainian town, 11 civilians were wounded when Russian missiles overnight struck residential buildings, the local prosecutor’s office reported.

It also posted photos of rubble lining the courtyard outside a high-rise apartment building, its windows blown out, and of cars parked outside that appeared reduced to piles of twisted metal.

A woman also died in Russia’s Kursk region, which borders Ukraine, after shells fired from Ukraine set her house on fire, according to local Governor Roman Starovoit, who added that the woman’s husband suffered severe burns.

Mr Starovoit also said debris from a downed Ukrainian drone sparked a fire at an oil depot in the Kursk region.

Nine Ukrainian drones targeted the Belgorod region, another southern Russian province that borders Ukraine, overnight and on Sunday, according to local Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov.

Later on Sunday, Russia’s Defence Ministry said two drones were shot down over the Novgorod region in northern Russia, more than 620 miles (1,000km) from the Ukrainian border. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

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