Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy held talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Saturday, saying it was a great honor to meet with the pontiff, who has previously offered to do what he can to try to end the war launched by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago.
Zelenskyy held his hand of his heart as the pope, using a cane, came to greet him before ushering the Ukrainian into a papal studio near the Vatican’s audience call. “Thank you for your visit,’’ Francis said, as their 40-minute-long meeting began.
In a written statement, the Vatican said the two men spoke about Ukraine’s “humanitarian and political situation provoked by the war going on.’’
“The pope assured his constant prayer, paid witness to by his many public appeals and by his continued invoking of the Lord for peace, since February of last year,’’ the Vatican said, a reference to the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, by Russia’s military.
“Both agreed on the need to continue humanitarian efforts” to help the population. “The pope underlined in particular the urgent need for ‘humanitarian gestures’ toward the most fragile persons, innocent victims of the conflict,” the statement said.
Last month, Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, met with Francis at the Vatican and said he asked the pontiff to help Ukraine get back children illegally taken to Russia during the invasion.
Saturday’s communique from the Vatican made no mention of that, and there were no immediate details from Zelenskyy’s side about his meeting with the pontiff.
Ahead of Zelenskyy’s arrival in late afternoon, police moved tourists to one side of St. Peter’s Square so the Ukrainian president’s motorcade could speed across the vast cobblestone space.
Earlier in the day, Zelenskyy met with Italian officials after his morning flight to Rome. He received pledges of both open-ended military and financial support as well as stronger backing for Ukraine’s cherished aim to join the European Union.
“The message is clear and simple,” Meloni said, flanked by Zelenskyy as the two briefed reporters after their meeting at her office, which lasted more than an hour. “The future of Ukraine is a future of peace and freedom. And it’s the future of Europe, a future of peace and freedom, for which there are no other possible solutions.’’
Meloni, who had met with Zelenskyy in Ukraine in February, just ahead of the anniversary of the invasion, renewed her pledge to champion Ukraine’s EU ambitions, saying Ukraine was moving ahead with required reforms despite the war.
The premier, who staunchly backs military aid for Ukraine, said Italy would back the country “360 degrees for all the time necessary and beyond.”
But while her far-right Brothers of Italy party champions the principle of national sovereignty, Meloni has had to contend with leaders of two coalition partners who for years have openly professed their admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Coalition ally Silvio Berlusconi, a former premier, has boasted of his friendship with Putin, while another government ally, League leader Matteo Salvini, has questioned the value of economic sanctions against Russia.
Zelenskyy began his official meetings by calling on Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the presidential Quirinale Palace.
“We are fully at your side,” Mattarella told Zelenskyy as he welcomed him. Later, after their meeting, presidential palace sources said Mattarella assured his guest that Italy would continue supporting Ukraine militarily and financially, as well as with reconstruction and humanitarian aid, in both the short and long term.
Since the war began, Italy has furnished about 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in military and financial aid, as well as humanitarian assistance.
Zelenskyy is believed to be heading to Berlin next for what would be his first visit to Germany since the war began. The exact schedule hadn’t been publicly announced because of security concerns. Italian state radio reported that as part of protective measures, a no-fly zone was ordered for the skies over Rome and police sharpshooters were strategically placed on high buildings.
Francis had previously met with Zelenskyy in 2020. At the end of April, flying back to Rome from a trip to Hungary, Francis told reporters on the plane that the Vatican was involved in a behind-the-scene peace mission but gave no details. Neither Russia nor Ukraine has confirmed such an initiative.
He has said he would like to go to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, if such a visit could be coupled with one to Moscow, in hopes a papal pilgrimage could further the cause of peace.
The German government, meanwhile, said it was providing Ukraine with additional military aid worth more than 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion), including tanks, anti-aircraft systems and ammunition.
Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said Berlin wanted to show with the latest package of arms “that Germany is serious in its support” for Ukraine.
“Germany will provide all the help it can, as long as it takes,” he said.
Frank Jordans in Berlin, Joanna Kozlowska in London, and Nicole Winfield and Gianfranco Stara in Rome contributed to this report. » …