Pope keeps Moscow dialogue open even if it's uncomfortable

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Pope Francis cheers with Metropolitan Antony at the end of the '7th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, at the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, Thursday, Sept.15, 2022. Pope Francis is on the third day of his three-day trip to Kazakhstan. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The Vatican plans to keep open paths of dialogue with Russia, even if doing so “smells,” Pope Francis said Thursday, reaffirming Ukraine’s right to defend itself.

Francis spoke at length about Russia’s war in Ukraine and the need for peace during a press conference while traveling home from Kazakhstan. Francis had visited the former Soviet republic to participate in an interfaith peace conference that, in its final communique, called on all political leaders to stop conflict and bloodshed “in all corners of our world.”

Francis has long touted the need for dialogue, even with antagonists and countries that are hostile to the Catholic Church. He reaffirmed that policy in comments about Russia, China and even Nicaragua, where the government has been cracking down on the church.

“I don’t exclude dialogue with any power that is in war, even if it’s the aggressor,” Francis said. “It smells, but you have to do it. Always take a step forward, with the hand outstretched, because the alternative is to close the only reasonable door to peace.”

In that vein, Francis had hoped his trip to Nur-Sultan in Kazakhstan would provide a chance to meet with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who has justified the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine on spiritual and ideological grounds. Patriarch Kirill bowed out of the conference last month, but his envoy who attended said another meeting was possible between the two world religious leaders but must be prepared well in advance.

At the same time, though, Francis affirmed that it was “morally acceptable” for Ukraine to receive weapons to defend itself against Moscow’s invasion. He said such a defense is not only right but “also an expression of love for your country.” But he said the motivation behind such fighting is key.

“It can be immoral if it’s done with the intention of provoking more war or selling weapons or getting rid of the weapons that you don’t need anymore,” he said.

Lamenting that wars are raging around the planet, he recalled that when he was 9 years old, in 1945, he learned the value of peace as word spread in Buenos Aires that World War II had ended.

“Even today, I can see my mother and the neighbor weeping with joy because the war had ended. We were in a South American country, far away. But these people, these women, knew that peace was bigger than all wars. And they wept with joy when peace was made.”

“I won’t ever forget that,” he said.

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