(Bloomberg) — The Vatican tried to walk back remarks from Pope Francis after he told Russians last week to take pride in being “the heirs” of “that great Russian empire” in comments that ignited outrage in Ukraine.
The Foreign Ministry in Kyiv called the Pope’s statements, made in a speech Friday to young Russians, “sad” and said his comments supported the “imperialistic ideas” embraced by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Vatican said Francis’s comments, in which he told Russians to honor “the legacy” of leaders that expanded Russia’s borders by force, including Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, had not meant to praise expansionist thinking.
“The Pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote all that is positive in the great Russian cultural and spiritual heritage, and certainly not to exalt imperialist logic and government personalities,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement.
The Pope’s mention of Peter and Catherine were made “to indicate some historical periods of reference,” he added.
The head of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church denounced the comments as an endorsement of Russia’s “nationalism and imperialism that today has caused the war in Ukraine — a war that brings death and destruction to our people every day.”
Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed and wounded in the war in Ukraine, which started in 2014 when Russian forces seized Crimea and staged separatist uprisings in its neighbor’s largely Russian-speaking east. It then escalated when Putin launched a full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022.
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