Pope Francis likens Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine to Holocaust

Vatican Pope
Pope Francis delivers his speech during a weekly general audience in the Pope Paul VI hall at the Vatican, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) Andrew Medichini/AP

Pope Francis likens Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine to Holocaust

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Pope Francis compared Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the Holocaust, a new salvo in an intensifying dispute with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“History is repeating itself,” the pope said Wednesday after recalling a Nazi operation to murder Polish Jews. “We see now what is happening in Ukraine.”

Francis drew criticism early in the war for seeming to validate Putin’s claim that NATO provoked the war by entertaining Ukraine’s desire to join the trans-Atlantic alliance. Yet his rhetoric has hardened in recent months, although he prefers still to avoid mentioning Putin by name, culminating in a denunciation remarkable for its mention of Nazi Germany’s “Operation Reinhardt,” a 1941 plan to eradicate Poland’s Jewish population.

“It resulted in the extermination of nearly 2 million victims, mostly of Jewish origin,” he said, according to an unofficial translation of a Vatican News report. “May the memory of this horrible event arouse resolutions and actions for peace in all of us. And history repeats itself.”

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It is the second time in recent weeks that the pope has implied that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine qualifies as a genocide. He called for prayer on behalf of Ukrainian civilians while discussing “the anniversary of the terrible genocide of the Holodomor,” a manufactured famine that the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin inflicted on Ukraine in 1932. His latest remarks were prompted by a commemoration event hosted by the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin’s Center for Catholic-Jewish Relations.

“The scale, circumstances, and methods of Operation Reinhardt were very different,” the center’s deputy director, the Rev. Pawel Rytel-Andrianik, told the Wall Street Journal. “However, given what created the conditions for it — the unjustified military aggression of one country against another — we can speak, in some sense, of history repeating itself, from which humanity has not learned its lesson.”

Putin has attempted to justify the war by claiming that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government is a “Nazi regime,” as he put it again on Wednesday, and that Russian-speaking Ukrainians were oppressed in the eastern part of the country.

“We have emphasized many times that for eight years, the rights of the residents of the much-suffering Donbas were completely ignored by the international community, the so-called international community,” Putin said Wednesday.

Zelensky, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian whose grandfather survived the Holocaust, visited the front lines of the Donbas region this week — “You are an outpost of our independence,” he said while marking Ukraine Armed Forces Day — while his government also invokes apparent Russian war crimes to make the case for additional Western military aid.

“On Feb. 24, Russia started a total war against us, and this is a war for survival,” he told the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation. “The fate of millions of people is being decided on the battlefield in Ukraine. Millions — who can be saved.”

Russian forces have attacked the nation’s energy infrastructure in an apparent effort to deprive the civilian population of electricity and utilities during the winter. That tactic seems to have inaugurated the shift in tone from Francis, although his sharper language has brought its own controversy. He blamed the worst Russian military atrocities on ethnic minorities in the military, such as “the Chechens, the Buryati and so on,” rather than soldiers “of the Russian tradition.”

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That statement drew a rebuke from anti-war Russian nationals and also the Russian government. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov condemned the comment as “completely un-Christian.”

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