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Ukraine crisis the focal point in Pope's discussion with Putin

By Elise Harris

Vatican City, Jun 10, 2015 / 01:44 pm (CNA/EWTN News) - In the second meeting between Pope Francis and Russian president Vladimir Putin, held on Wednesday at the Vatican, the discussion focused on the current crises in both Ukraine and the Middle East.

Under Putin, Russia has annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine; and according to the Ukrainian government and Western nations, Russian arms and soldiers are fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country. Putin has denied the presence of Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

A June 10 communique from the Vatican revealed that Pope Francis stressed to Putin the need to “engage in a sincere and great effort to achieve peace” in the Ukrainian conflict.

He also emphasized the importance of rebuilding a climate of dialogue in which all parties are committed to carry out former peace agreements decided on in Minsk earlier this year.

Mention was also made of the serious humanitarian situation, with particular regard to the access of humanitarian workers to areas in need.

Putin and Pope Francis also discussed the situation in the Middle East, particularly Iraq and Syria, where Russia has backed president Bashar al-Assad in the country's civil war. The situation had also been the central point of the Francis' and Putin's first meeting, in 2013.

They spoke of the urgency of pursuing peace in the region with the help of the international community, and the need to protect religious minorities, particularly Christians.

After a delay of 70 minutes, Putin arrived at the Vatican by way of the Via della Conciliazione, the large street leading up to St. Peter’s Square.

The private encounter lasted 50 minutes, and was conducted in through two interpreters, one for the Pope in Italian and one for Putin in Russian.

Once the Russian president arrived, Pope Francis greeted him by saying “welcome” in German, and the president responded saying nothing, but giving a nod of acknowledgment.

Although the two looked at each other once they sat down in the meeting room, they remained silent until the door was closed. Pope Francis was described as being “very serious” from the moment the two greeted each other, although he began to “warm up” a bit during the group photo.

Putin gave the Pope a golden embroidery of the church of San Salvatore, saying “this is the Church of San Salvatore, which was destroyed in the Soviet age and was rebuilt.”

For his part, Pope Francis gave the president a large medal of the Angel of Peace crafted by artist Guido Veroi as well as a copy of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

When giving Putin the medal, Francis told him that this is “the angel of peace, who defeats all war and speaks about solidarity among peoples,” and said that the joy of the Gospel “has many religious, human, geopolitical and social reflections” while handing him the exhortation.

At the end of the encounter Putin told the Pope that “it has been a great pleasure, an honor to meet you,” and said goodbye.

Before heading to the Vatican, Putin had been in Milan to meet with Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi. The two discussed their countries’ longstanding good relations, but also highlighted areas of contention, mostly surrounding current European Union sanctions against Moscow due to the Ukrainian conflict.

Conflict erupted in Ukraine in February of last year when the country’s former president was ousted following months of violent protest, and a new government appointed.

In March 2014 Ukraine’s eastern peninsula of Crimea was annexed by Russia, and pro-Russian separatist rebels have since taken control of eastern portions of Ukraine around Donetsk and Luhansk.

It is estimated that nearly 6,000 people have died in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Rebels have been supported by both Russian arms and troops, according to both Ukraine and Western nations.

A ceasefire agreed on in Minsk officially began at midnight Feb. 15, and called for all sides to pull back heavy weapons.

However, despite the agreement of a ceasefire and the slight fall in violence since it was reached, shelling in the eastern region of the country has continued, and the number of casualties has continued to rise.

In a May 27 interview with CNA, Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Sviatoslav Shevchuk said the ceasefire is being violated.

“It’s true that the intensity of fighting on the occupied territories has decreased, but it doesn’t mean that the fighting has stopped at all. Every day we receive sad news that someone has been killed or wounded in the result of continued fighting,” he said.

Most alarming for Ukrainians however, is the fact that “over the last months, hundreds of pieces of heavy weaponry have reached Ukrainian territory from the side of the Russian Federation,” the archbishop said.

“This equipment includes tanks – there are about 700 of them in Donbass according to the Ukrainian authorities – heavy artillery, mobile rocket launchers etc.,” he noted.

In addition, Archbishop Shevchuk said that according to information from the Ukrainian government and international observers, “there is a massive accumulation of Russian troops in Ukraine and on the Russian border.”

The archbishop said the current aggression against Ukraine “is a challenge for preserving peace in the world which cannot pretend that nothing happens in Eastern Europe.”

He noted how Pope Francis has often expressed his commitment to ensuring that another war does not break out in Europe, and pledged that the Holy See will do its best in securing peace agreements in Ukraine.

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