By Philip Pullella and Alvise Armellini
VATICAN CITY, June 5 (Reuters) – Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, tasked by Pope Francis to carry out a peace mission to try to help end the war in Ukraine, headed to Kyiv on Monday for a two-day trip to sound out government authorities.
The Vatican announced his visit, which many observers see as an uphill effort, in a short statement. It said the main purpose was “to listen carefully to Ukrainian authorities on the possible ways to reach a just peace and support humanitarian gestures that may help ease tensions”.
It was not clear if Zuppi, who is archbishop of Bologna and head of the Italian Bishops Conference, would meet President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Zelenskiy met the pope at the Vatican on May 13 and later appeared cool to the prospects of any papal initiative that would put Ukraine on an equal footing with Russia, which invaded its neighbour on Feb. 24, 2022.
Zuppi, 67, told reporters last month that he did not foresee a mediation in the strict sense of the word but that he was ready to “do anything” to help ease tensions.
“We can’t watch a war without at least saying that we are close to the victims and seeking in every way possible to alleviate the consequences,” he said.
At the meeting in May, Zelenskiy asked the pope to back Kyiv’s peace plan, which Zelenskiy has repeatedly said is not open to negotiation.
The plan calls for restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the withdrawal of Russian troops and cessation of hostilities, and the restoration of Ukraine’s state borders.
In an interview on May 26, the pope skirted the issue, saying an eventual return by Russia of occupied territories is a “political problem” to be resolved by both sides.
Diplomats have said that Ukraine would also be cool to the idea of putting a meeting between Zuppi and Zelenskiy and an eventual one between Zuppi and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the same plane.
“There can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor,” Zelenskiy said after his May 13 meeting with the pope.
The Vatican statement’s mention of “humanitarian gestures” on Monday appeared to be a reference to Kyiv’s request – and the Vatican’s willingness – to help with the repatriation of Ukrainian children.
Kyiv estimates nearly 19,500 children have been taken to Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea since February 2022, in what it condemns as illegal deportations.
Zuppi hails from the Sant’ Egidio Community, a Rome-based peace and justice group which has been instrumental in several peace negotiations, particularly in Africa.
In 1992, the group brokered a deal that ended the civil war in Mozambique that had killed about a million people and displaced about four million.
Photo: Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, the Archbishop of Bologna and President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference. EPA-EFE/CLAUDIO PERI