VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Vatican next month, a day before Catholic leaders from Ukraine gather at the Holy See to discuss the continuing conflict there and the fallout from the schism between the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches.
The Vatican confirmed the July 4 audience Thursday. It will be the third meeting between Francis and Putin.
Francis and Moscow Patriarch Kirill sat down for talks in 2016 in the first meeting of the heads of both churches in a century. That summit, in Cuba, was seen as a possible step toward a papal visit to Russia. Not a single pope has ever set foot in Russia.
Asked if Putin would extend an invitation for Francis to visit Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday that it was too early to say.
Last month, the Vatican announced that Francis had invited the leadership of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, a minority eastern rite church loyal to the pope, for meetings July 5-6. The aim, it said, was to lend support “in the delicate situation in which Ukraine finds itself.”
Last year, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine formally split from the Russian Orthodox Church in a schism recognized by the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.
The push for a full-fledged and independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church was bolstered by fighting in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed rebels.
The Vatican hasn’t entered into the fray for fear of upsetting relations with the various players. It said the summit of the Greek Catholic leadership is aimed at helping “promote peace and understanding, where possible, with the Latin rite church and other churches and Christian communities.”
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and backs separatist rebels who have been fighting Ukrainian forces in the country’s east for the past five years, a conflict that has left over 13,000 dead.
Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had touted the creation of an independent Ukrainian church as a cornerstone of his unsuccessful bid for re-election. Poroshenko and many other prominent figures have argued that it was vital to set up an independent Ukrainian church and sever centuries-long ties with the Russian church after the annexation of Crimea.
Moscow accused Kiev of trying to use church issues for political purposes. Earlier this year, Putin criticized the decision to set up a new Orthodox church in Ukraine, saying that it was rooted in “struggle for power” and triggered “animosity and intolerance.” He also warned of sectarian violence and said that Moscow is ready to “do everything to protect human rights, including freedom of conscience.”
Some Ukrainian parishes saw scuffles and clashes earlier this year between the proponents of the new church and those who wanted to stay affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate. But the violence has overall been sporadic and low-level.
Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy eschewed Poroshenko’s religious policy and said that the state should not interfere in religious affairs.
Vasilyeva reported from Moscow.