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Pope’s “white flag” statement receives criticism from Ukraine 

Pope Francis during his weekly general audience at St. Peter's Square at the Vatican

Antoine Mekary | ALETEIA

Isabella H. de Carvalho - I.Media - published on 03/12/24

In an interview, the Pope said that between Russia and Ukraine the “strongest” is the one that has “the courage of the white flag, to negotiate.”

Pope Francis has received critical reactions from Ukrainians and their allies — resulting in the Vatican ambassador being summoned by the warring country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs — after saying in an interview broadcast March 9, 2024, that those involved in the conflict in Ukraine should have the “courage of the white flag, to negotiate.”

The director of the Vatican press office, Matteo Bruni, assured in a statement published in Vatican News on the same day that the Pope was not calling for Ukraine to surrender but to negotiate a solution to the conflict. 

“The strongest one is he who sees the situation, who thinks of the people, who has the courage of the white flag, to negotiate,” Pope Francis said in an interview with Swiss radio and television network, RSI, in response to a question on whether Ukraine surrendering would legitimize Russia’s power.

This section of the interview, which was apparently recorded in early February, was part of excerpts published on March 9. The full interview will be broadcast March 20.

“When you see that you are defeated, that things are not going, it is necessary to have the courage to negotiate. You have shame, but how many deaths will it end with?” the Pope continued, without explicitly mentioning Ukraine. He urged the actors involved in this conflict to find “a country that can be a mediator,” citing Turkey as an example.

“Don’t be ashamed to negotiate before it gets worse,” he concluded.

The Holy Father has made an insistence on dialogue the hallmark of his commentary on war. He repeatedly calls for seeking out the conditions that make dialogue possible, regardless of which conflict he’s mentioning.

On his way home from Kazakhstan in September 2022, for example, he vividly admitted that negotiating can be repugnant.

we must extend the opportunity for dialogue to everyone, to everyone! Because there is always the possibility that in dialogue we can change things […]

I don’t exclude dialogue with any power, whether it’s at war, whether it’s the aggressor … sometimes dialogue has to be done in this manner, but it has to be done; it “stinks,” but it has to be done. Always one step ahead, an outstretched hand, always! Because otherwise we close off the only reasonable door to peace.

The Holy See’s clarification

Bruni, as a Vatican spokesman, clarified in a statement that the Pope “uses the term white flag, and responds by picking up the image proposed by the interviewer, to indicate a cessation of hostilities, a truce reached with the courage of negotiation.”

The interview is part of a cultural program that focused this episode on the meaning of the color white. 

“Elsewhere in the interview, speaking of another situation of conflict, but referring to every situation of war, the Pope clearly stated: ‘Negotiations are never a surrender,’” Bruni added. He highlighted that the “Pope’s wish remains the one he has always repeated in recent years,” meaning that of finding “a diplomatic solution in search of a just and lasting peace.”

On March 12, in an interview with the Italian media outlet Corriere della Sera, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, also emphasized this point.

Creating the conditions for a just peace “does not fall solely on one of the parties but on both, and the first condition seems to me to be precisely putting an end to the aggression,” he said, without directly mentioning Russia. The Holy See “continues to call for a ceasefire — and it should be the aggressors who cease fire first — and then the opening of negotiations.”

Reactions from the highest political levels

On March 11, the apostolic nuncio to Ukraine, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, was summoned by the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as explained in a statement published on social media. The Ministry informed the Vatican ambassador that “Ukraine is disappointed with the Pontiff’s words.”

They added that the Pope should “send signals to the global community about the need to join forces immediately to ensure the victory of good over evil,” rather than making “appeals legalizing the right of the strong and encouraging him to further ignore the norms of international law.” 

In his nightly video address on March 10, the day after the excerpts were released, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky praised the work of chaplains on the frontline for “protecting life and humanity, supporting with prayer, conversation, and deeds.”

“This is what the church is – it is together with people, not two and a half thousand kilometers away somewhere, virtually mediating between someone who wants to live and someone who wants to destroy you,” the President said, without explicitly mentioning the Pontiff. 

The NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also told Reuters on March 11, in response to being asked about the Pope’s remarks, that “it’s not the time to talk about surrender by the Ukrainians” and that for a “negotiated peaceful lasting solution,” Ukraine must receive military support. 

Other reactions and support from the allies

On the other hand, the Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that it was “quite easy to understand” that Pope Francis was speaking in favor of negotiations, as reported by Russian press agency Tass. He added that Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed his “readiness and openness” to discuss with Ukraine. 

Over the weekend several other figures reacted to the Pope’s words, such as the Ukrainian Foreign Minister or the Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See, both comparing the situation to the Second World War. There were also messages of support by other ambassadors to the Holy See and political figures

The reaction of the Ukrainian Churches

The permanent Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, headed by Major Archbishop His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, also released a statement on March 10 directly in response to the Pope’s interview.

“Ukrainians cannot surrender because surrender means death. […] Ukrainians will continue to defend themselves. They feel they have no choice. […] Ukrainians will continue to defend freedom and dignity to achieve a peace that is just,” the statement says, explaining in detail “the position of most Ukrainians” with regards to the war and Russia.

The Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations also released a statement that, although it did not mention the Pope directly, said they “categorically declare that no one will ever force our people to capitulate. Ukraine is bleeding, but it stands for the Truth, for the right to be itself.” 

The rest of the Pope’s interview

In the interview extracts from RSI, the Pope also spoke about the conflict in the Holy Land. “Every day at seven o’clock in the [evening] I call the parish in Gaza. Six hundred people live there and they tell what they see: It is a war. And the war is being waged by two, not one. The irresponsible ones are these two who make the war,” the Pontiff said. 

The Pontiff then nuanced his statement, by asserting that the current war is not just a “military” one, as Hamas has engaged in a “guerrilla war.”

“This is a bad thing,” he stated. 

Pope Francis also criticized in the interview those in power across the world who claim to defend themselves but then “have the factory of aircrafts to bomb the others.”

The “most profitable investments” at present are in the arms industry, lamented the Pope.

Finally, the Pope criticized the hypocrisy of certain actors in the face of these conflicts, explaining that humanitarian interventions also serve to “cover up a feeling of guilt.” Nevertheless, he is certain that a way out is possible. “Look at history: the wars we’ve been through, all ended with an accord,” he insisted.

Pope FrancisRussiaUkraineWar
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