Pope Francis’s recent commentary on Russian military war crimes in Ukraine is “un-Christian,” according to Russia’s top diplomat, who faulted him for “singling out” Russian ethnic minorities for condemnation.
“Pope Francis calls for talks but also recently made an incomprehensible statement, completely un-Christian, singling out two Russian nationalities into some category from which atrocities can be expected during hostilities,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters Thursday. “Of course, this doesn’t help the cause and the authority of the Holy See.”
Russian officials in recent days have lambasted the pope, whose condemnation of the Russian war in Ukraine has hardened despite his initial hope to broker peace talks. The pope had defended himself from critics who protested his aversion to specific rebukes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but his most explicit comments on that point proved controversial as well.
“When I speak about Ukraine, I speak about the cruelty because I have much information about the cruelty of the troops that come in,” Pope Francis told America Magazine, a Jesuit publication. “Generally, the cruelest are perhaps those who are of Russia but are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryati and so on. Certainly, the one who invades is the Russian state. This is very clear.”
Those comments provoked widespread rebukes from Russian officials, while frustrating even anti-war activists.
“I am deeply disappointed with this statement which is totally groundless and bluntly racist,” Free Buryatia Foundation Research Director Maria Vyushkova, a scientist with the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Research Computing, said this week. “There is no evidence of ethnic Buryats being involved in war crimes more often than other Russian troops who are ‘of Russian tradition.’ Moreover, it turned out that mass murders in the city of Bucha, Kyiv Region were committed by the 76th Guards Air Assault Division from Pskov (who are almost exclusively ethnic Russians) and not ‘Buryats’ as it was initially stated by some.”
A top aide to Lavrov ventured “to remind our Catholic brothers that the Bible says all people have one Father.” The pope reiterated his denunciation of the “cruelty” of the invading forces in a public address one day after the magazine interview took place, but he modified his rhetoric somewhat by saying that this “cruelty … is not of the Russian people, because the Russian people are a great people, but of the mercenaries.”
Lavrov likened Russian bombardments of civilian energy infrastructure in the territories that Putin has attempted to annex from Ukraine to the Soviet tactics to repel the Nazi German invasion during World War II.
“Well, Stalingrad was our territory, too, and that is where we attacked the Germans, and eventually they fled,” he said, per a live interpreter.
The controversy has unfolded as Western officials intensify their own plans to punish Russia’s apparent war crimes in response to Putin’s persistent bombardment of Ukrainian energy infrastructure.
“It is unable to win the war, so it is destroying Ukraine systematically: bombing, destroying all civilian infrastructure. … This is a war crime,” European Union high representative Josep Borrell said Thursday. “I will present a proposal … support the Ukrainian Prosecutor [General] to gather evidence of these atrocities, and to support the proposal for a special tribunal dedicated to this issue — to the war crimes in Ukraine.”
Putin’s team dismissed Borrell’s move. “As for attempts to hold some sort of tribunals, they will have no legitimacy, won’t be accepted by us, and will be condemned by us,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.