Vatican aims to return Ukrainian children, not mediate war, says cardinal

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi spoke with Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony of Volokolamsk, head of external church relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, during a meeting at the Danilov monastery in Moscow June 29, 2023. (CNS Photo Courtesy of the Russian Orthodox Church, Department for External Church Relations)

By Justin McLellan

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is developing a plan to return to Ukraine children illegally deported to Russia but is not jockeying to mediate the war, Pope Francis’ peace envoy said upon his return from his mission to Moscow.

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, told the Italian state broadcasters RAI July 3 that “humanitarian aspects,” particularly revolving around the children affected by the war, were the focus of his meetings with Russian officials and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow June 28-30.

“There is no peace plan (or) mediation,” he said, “there is a great aspiration that the violence ends, that human lives can be saved starting with the defense of the youngest.”

At a book presentation in Rome July 4, the cardinal told reporters that he had already spoken to the pope about his trip to Moscow and that the Vatican is currently working on a “mechanism” to help Ukrainian children that have been taken into Russia, Vatican News reported.

“The children should be able to return to Ukraine,” he said. “The first step is verifying the children and then seeing how to return them, starting with the most fragile.”

Cardinal Zuppi returned to Italy June 30 after meeting in Moscow with Yury Ushakov, a Kremlin foreign policy adviser and former ambassador to the United States; Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, accused by the International Criminal Court of aiding the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia; and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

Ushakov said in an interview with Interfax news agency published June 30 that while no agreements were made in their meetings, the cardinal’s desire to “depoliticize all humanitarian affairs” was important to Russia and that Moscow “appreciates the balanced and impartial stance of the Vatican” on the situation in Ukraine.

Speaking at an event on war in Europe July 2, Cardinal Zuppi said that Ukrainian officials are strongly requesting the Vatican’s assistance on humanitarian efforts, particularly on protecting minors and young children.

During the cardinal’s trip to Moscow, the Ukrainian embassy to the Holy See said on Twitter that it welcomed Cardinal Zuppi’s peace initiative so long as it was able to help illegally deported children return to Ukraine, but added in another tweet that “we don’t need mediation with Russia.”

The cardinal said July 2 that Pope Francis’ concern is to “create all opportunities to see, to listen and encourage everything that can lead toward a resolution to the conflict.”

“Of course there are small openings, we must look for them,” he said. “It is precisely in the darkness that the light of peace must be sought while knowing no one has a magic wand.”

Cardinal Zuppi traveled to Ukraine June 5-6 where he visited Bucha and Kyiv. In the capital he met with Ukrainian officials including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. After their meeting June 6 the president wrote on his Telegram channel that only diplomatic isolation and pressure on Russia could bring a “just peace” to Ukraine.

Catholic News Service
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