A woman holds a Ukrainian flag at St.Peter's square as Pope Francis addresses the crowd during his Sunday Angelus prayer on March 10, 2024 at the Vatican. Image Credit: AFP

KYIV, Ukraine: Ukrainian and allied officials criticised Pope Francis for saying that 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 World War II analogies to condemn the pope’s remarks, while a leader of one of Ukraine’s Christian churches on Sunday said that only the country’s determined resistance to Russia’s war had prevented a mass slaughter of civilians.

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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 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.

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In a separate post, 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 World War II.

Andrii Yurash, Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See, said that it was “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.”

Vatican clarification

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 that 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 that Ukraine should agree to peace talks and those who argue that any negotiations would legitimise war.

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

Diplomatic neutrality

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 attacking 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 when he publicly used terms such as “white flag” or “defeated” while discussing the war.

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. 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,” Shevchuk said while meeting with Ukrainians in New York City. He mentioned the regions that have been under heavy Russian artillery and drone attacks.

Shevchuk 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 that he was praying “for peace in the tormented Ukraine and in the Holy Land.”