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Pope Francis’ ‘white flag’ comments echo ‘Kremlin propagandists’ say Ukrainian Catholics

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The Vatican issued an urgent clarification Saturday, after Pope Francis called for Ukrainians to “have the courage of the white flag” in excerpts from an upcoming TV interview, triggering a fierce backlash from Ukrainian officials and Catholic leaders.

But while the Vatican’s press team has attempted to calm papal critics — and insist on the pope’s closeness to the Ukrainian people — Catholic leaders in Ukraine say the pope is playing into the hands of Russian propaganda.

Pope Francis meets Russian president Vladimir Putin in Vatican City, 2019.


On March 9, Radio Télévision Suisse published segments from an upcoming feature interview with the pope in which he discussed a range of issues. In one previewed sectioned, Francis was asked about global conflicts and his hopes for peace. 

“I believe that the stronger one is the one who sees the situation, who thinks of the people, who has the courage of the white flag, to negotiate,” the pope responded.

“Today, for example, in the war in Ukraine, there are many that want to be mediators, no? Turkey for example. Do not be ashamed to negotiate before things get worse,” Francis said.

The remarks triggered a storm of fury in Ukraine and further afield, with many Catholics interpreting the pope’s remarks as an encouragement for the Ukrainian people to accept some kind of surrender to Russia, in order to end the conflict.

Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 and has committed numerous war crimes in the course of the war.

In response to the weekend crisis Vatican press director Matteo Bruni issued a statement Saturday attempting to clarify the pope’s words, insisting that Francis has routinely spoken of Ukraine as a “martyred” country in the face of the invasion and affirmed his care for the Ukrainian people.  

Bruni insisted that while using of the image of a “white flag” Francis did not mean to imply Ukrainians should surrender to Russia in the name of peace. 

Instead, Bruni said, the pope was “picking up the image proposed by the interviewer, to indicate a cessation of hostilities, a truce reached with the courage of negotiation.”

Later in the interview Francis made clear that “negotiations are never a surrender,” Bruni said Saturday.

The full interview is set for broadcast later this month. But meanwhile, the Vatican’s efforts to contextualize the pope’s comments have done little to allay criticism from Ukrainian diplomats and Catholic leaders.

The Permanent Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church issued a statement over the weekend which recognized that the full interview had yet to be broadcast, and that “the reference to a ‘white flag’ in the interview is a summons to negotiations not to a surrender by Ukraine.” 

“In the conversation, the Holy Father speaks not only about the Russian war against Ukraine but also the war between Israel and Hamas. As he has done repeatedly, Pope Francis calls for negotiated settlements of armed conflicts,” the Ukrainian Church’s leaders said.

But while acknowledging the Vatican’s response, the bishops said they “would like to reflect not upon the pope's statement but upon the point of view of the victims of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.”

“Ukrainians cannot surrender because surrender means death. The intentions of Putin and Russia are clear and explicit. The aims are not those of one individual: 70% of the Russian population support the genocidal war against Ukraine, as does Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church. The expressed objectives are articulated in concrete actions,” said the synod’s statement.

Referencing the Russian president’s concept of “Russkiy mir,” an ideology of a “greater Russia” supported by the national Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian bishops noted that “In Putin's mind, there is no such thing as Ukraine, Ukrainian history, language, and independent Ukrainian church life. All matters Ukrainian are ideological constructs, fit to be eradicated. Ukraine is not a reality but a mere ‘ideology.’ The ideology of Ukrainian identity, according to Putin, is ‘Nazi.’”

The war crimes in Bucha, Irpin, Borodianka, Izium, and in other places occupied by Russian forces have illustrated for Ukrainians (and to all people of good will) the clear purpose of this war: to eliminate Ukraine and Ukrainians.” 

“It is worth mentioning that every Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory leads to the eradication of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, any independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and to the suppression of other religions and all institutions and cultural expressions that do not support Russian hegemony,” said the synod, insisting that “Recent history has demonstrated that with Putin there will be no true negotiations.” 

“Notwithstanding the suggestions for [the] need for negotiations coming from representatives of different countries, including the Holy Father himself, Ukrainians will continue to defend freedom and dignity to achieve a peace that is just. They believe in freedom and God-given human dignity. They believe in truth, God's truth. They are convinced that God's truth will prevail,” the synod concluded.

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Francis’ “white flag” comment is the latest in a series of Vatican interventions following the Russian invasion.

In the most high-profile initiative, Pope Francis’ personal peace envoy, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, visited what the Vatican sees as the war’s four main decision-making centers: Kyiv, Moscow , Washington, and Beijing.

On Dec. 28 last year, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced he had spoken with the pope to express his “gratitude for his Christmas greetings to Ukraine and Ukrainians, for his wishes of peace — just peace for all of us,” and that he was “grateful to the Vatican for supporting our work.”

Pope Francis has confirmed publicly his involvement in exchanges of prisoners of war, indicating that he passes lists drawn up by Ukrainian authorities to Russian officials via the Russian embassy to the Holy See.

But the recent papal peace initiatives were preceded by other, more controversial Vatican interventions.

In 2022, the Vatican invited a Russian and Ukrainian women living in Italy to participate in the Good Friday Way of the Cross celebrated by Pope Francis — with both women holding aloft the cross at the 13th Station of the Cross.

While Vatican officials said the gesture was intended to be a call for peace, it was widely interpreted in Ukraine as giving moral equivalence to an invading force and an oppressed people.

At the same time, Francis has also incurred Moscow’s anger, after he publicly revealed he’d criticized the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in a private video conference, telling him not to be “Putin’s altar boy.”

But in a bid to keep the Holy See available to act as a kind of neutral channel for peace negotiations, Francis has also appeared to vacillate on the absolute rights and wrongs of the conflict, calling the Russian invasion “senseless, repugnant and sacrilegious,” and speaking of “the savage actions, the monstrosities” committed by Russian troops, while saying also that “it is a mistake to think that this is a cowboy movie where there are good guys and bad guys.”

Ongoing Ukrainian disappointment with the Holy See's gestures and Francis’ words is reflected in plummeting levels of trust in the pope among the country’s people — which fell from 45% in 2020  — when Ukrainains considered Francis the world's most trusted religious leader — to 3.1% in May 2023, according to the leading Ukrainian think tank Razumkov Centre. 

Razumkov's data show that more than half of Ukrainians (59%) now have a negative opinion of Pope Francis' stance on Russian aggression against Ukraine, believing that he equates the suffering of Ukrainians to that of Russians.

The pope’s “white flag” comments will likely do little to increase trust in Francis’ diplomatic aims, or his personal sympathy with Ukrainian people since, even with the Vatican’s subsequent qualifications, they still appear to favor an openness by Ukraine to accepting Russian annexation of its territory and people.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to reclaim all occupied Ukrainian territory, even including Crimea, which has been under Russian control since 2014 and was, unlike the four regions annexed in Friday, long considered part of Russian territory prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

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For many Ukrainian experts, the pope’s comments — and the way in which they have been presented — seem to play into the hands of Russia’s narrative of the invasion as justified and unwinnable for Ukraine. 

“I pay careful attention to certain revealing nuances of such interviews,”  Taras Antoshevskyi, director of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine told The Pillar on Saturday. 

Antoshevskyi questioned why “interviews about events as crucial as Russia's war against Ukraine are presented with significant delays,” noting that “the unfolding nature of these events demands prompt commentary, yet interviews conducted in February, discussing specific occurrences in the war, are presented in March, amidst new developments on the front.”

“Sadly,” said Antoshevskyi, “this is not an isolated occurrence. Belated presentations of conversations create a sense of manipulation and potential misuse.” 

“For the Ukrainian audience, this timing aligns disconcertingly with narratives propagated by Kremlin agents. These narratives paint a picture of a losing, collapsing Ukraine. The delayed presentation of conversations amplifies these manipulative tactics.” 

According to Antoshevskyi, the timing of the pope’s comments “evokes anger among Ukrainians, as it fosters a perception that the terms and framing of the discourse align with the messages disseminated by Kremlin propagandists,” he told The Pillar

Antoshevskyi explained that Russia’s goal is to dissuade international support for Ukraine “by painting a picture of a country in disarray, arguing against the necessity of providing weapons and defense against Russian missiles,” as it regroups for further offensive action.

“Consequently, the words of the pope, advocating ‘white flag,’ may be interpreted by Ukrainians as echoing the voice of Kremlin propaganda,” Antoshevskyi said. “This greatly undermines trust in the Church in general. It is particularly distressing, as it underscores the longstanding influence of Russian propaganda behind the Vatican's peace initiatives.”

Yuriy Pidlisnyy, chair of the political science department at the Ukrainian Catholic University, agreed with Antoshevskyi’s assessment, telling The Pillar that: “It is regrettable that someone must interpret and clarify the recent words of the pope, this time - Matteo Bruni.” 

“Words inherently carry meaning. When I hear the term ‘white flag’ uttered in the context of wartime, it universally signifies surrender or capitulation. Such words do not convey a sense of hope, especially for Ukrainians,” said Pidlisnyy, who pointed out that “shootings, rapes, deportations, and genocide” have historically characterized Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine. 

“Hence, it is exceptionally insensitive for the pope to employ such language, given the international significance of the white flag.”

“Perhaps the pope did not fully grasp this,”  Pidlisnyy said, “but his words, emphasizing a white flag and defeat, position him not on the side of the afflicted and beaten, but on the side of the robbers from the parable of the Good Samaritan.”

“The world that would emerge as a result of such negotiations would be a world marked by complete cynicism, where international law has ultimately lost its force,” the professor said. “In this scenario, the powerful can launch attacks and then legitimize their gains at the negotiating table. This raises critical questions about justice and accountability.” 

“The pope, akin to all the apostles, is called to bring faith and the Good News, but such statements foster a climate of despair rather than hope,” according to Pidlisnyy.

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Taras Kurylets, research fellow at the Institute of Ecumenism of the Ukrainian Catholic University, also told The Pillar that Francis’ comments, even allowing for the Vatican’s qualifications, represented a council of despair. 

“The pope did not understand us and still does not comprehend our situation,” he told The Pillar.

“It appears that he approaches the resolution of the war against Ukraine from the perspective of a good pastor: surrender, as the alternative will be worse; you have already lost, so further resistance is futile and will only result in more death and destruction.” 

Kurylets said that the pope’s calls for negotiations showed diplomatic naiveté: “On the surface, everything seems idyllic, resembling a fairy tale ending with ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ However, the likely consequences are quite different.” 

“Much has been discussed about this issue, yet neither the pope nor many individuals in Western society seem to grasp it fully,” Kurylets said. “Over time, the Russian Federation accumulates strength, learns from its mistakes, rebuilds its military prowess, elevates it to a higher level, and the uncertainty of where it will strike a second time looms large – the list is extensive.” 

“In my opinion, the person who conveys information to the pope plays a significant role [in his comments],” Kurylets said. “Considering the numerous missteps of Pope Francis on the Ukrainian issue, it seems that this individual is a carrier, possibly of a diluted version, of Russian narratives. From their perspective, Ukraine is already defeated.” 

But Kurylets offered a different perspective on the war.

“God has a good sense of humor,” he said. “What seems hopeless today returns victorious tomorrow — we all remember the story of David and Goliath.”

“I hope Pope Francis lives to witness Ukraine's triumph in this unjust war and the establishment of a new ‘Nuremberg Tribunal’ against the aggressor,” Kurylets said.

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