May 19, 2024

(Bloomberg) — Ukrainian top diplomat pushed back on Pope Francis’ call for his country to show “the courage of the white flag” and enter negotiations with Russia, a remark that fueled outrage among Ukrainians and condemnation from some foreign allies.

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“Our flag is a yellow and blue one,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Sunday on X, formerly Twitter. “This is the flag by which we live, die and prevail. We shall never raise any other flags.”

He urged the Vatican to avoid repeating what he called its “strategy from the first half of the twentieth century.”

Kuleba invited the pontiff to visit Ukraine in support of the nation’s many Catholics, Christians and its population in general.

The foreign minister’s statement followed a torrent of angry comments on Ukrainian social networks after the release of an excerpt from Pope’s interview with Swiss broadcaster RSI on Saturday.

There, Francis urged Ukraine to consider negotiations with Russia in the light of a looming possibility of a defeat. “Don’t be ashamed to negotiate before it gets worse,” the Pope said.

Read more: Ukraine Sees Risk of Russia Breaking Through Defenses by Summer

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni made a separate comment after the interview, saying the pope had “picked up” on the imagery of the white flag after it was used by the interviewer. He reaffirmed Francis’s “deep affection” to Ukrainian people, expressed most recently during a mass in February to mark the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Some foreign officials, including Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, also challenged the pope’s view.

“My Sunday morning take: One must not capitulate in face of evil, one must fight it and defeat it, so that the evil raises the white flag and capitulates,” Latvian President Edgars Rinkevics said on X.

Ukraine’s leadership has so far ruled out talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even as Kyiv’s military is strained by troop shortages and an ammunition deficit amid delays in receiving military aid from allies.

Read more: Ukraine Drafts Crucial Farm Workers to Boost Desperate Military

There’s been an increase in diplomatic activity, though, including a recent visit by a Chinese envoy to Kyiv, and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s trip to Turkey last week. Francis mentioned in Turkey in the interview as a potential mediator.

It isn’t the first time the Vatican has been forced to clarify comments from the 87-year-old pontiff on Russia and Ukraine.

Last year, it walked back remarks urging young Russians to take pride in being “heirs” of the nation’s heritage of empire. In 2022, the pope stirred controversy with a plan to have Russian and Ukrainian women carry the cross together during a Good Friday procession, just weeks into Russia’s invasion.

Ukraine is actively working to have the nations of the so-called Global South, including predominantly Catholic South America, support its peace blueprint, which sees a departure of Russian forces as precondition for any settlement.

Zelenskiy hasn’t directly responded to the pope’s remarks or the ensuing controversy.

Instead, he urged in a short Telegram statement on Sunday to stay strong in the face of what he called increasingly “insane” statements coming from Moscow.

“Only our strength in protecting life and our ability to achieve our aims can sober Russia up, at least partially,” Zelenskiy said.

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