Francis accepts invitation to visit Ukraine, says country’s president

Vatican City — Pope Francis has accepted an invitation to visit Ukraine made during a meeting Friday at the Vatican with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, according to a statement from the country’s leader.

While such invitations are routinely made by heads of state meeting with the pontiff, and the Vatican has yet to confirm the pope’s acceptance, a visit to Ukraine would carry high significance given continuing international outcry over Russia’s annexing of Crimea in 2014.

"I invited His Holiness to visit Ukraine and he accepted the invitation,” Poroshenko wrote on his Facebook page following Friday’s meeting, which saw the president meet privately with the pope for about 22 minutes in the Vatican’s apostolic palace.              

The possible visit by Francis would be only the second of a pontiff to the former Soviet nation, following a five-day visit by Pope John Paul II in 2001.

The situation in the country has been unsettled since early 2014, when Russia effectively took over the Crimean peninsula, part of Ukraine, by deploying unmarked trips to the region before holding a referendum for independence and absorption into the Russian Federation.

The Russians are also now threatening Ukraine with a food-trade ban should the country conclude a trade deal with the European Union, a move Ukrainian authorities say could cost some $600 million in revenue.

The meeting between Poroshenko and Francis was held privately Friday.

In a statement afterwards, the Vatican said discussions “were dedicated principally to matters connected with the situation of conflict in the country.” The two leaders focused specifically on humanitarian concerns and spoke particularly of economic and social consequences of the conflict, the Vatican said.

After their meeting Friday, Francis gave Poroshenko his traditional gift of a bronze medallion showing an olive branch holding together two parts of a rock face, a symbol of the duty of political leaders to overcome what divides and work for peace.

“This is my desire of peace for Ukraine,” the pontiff could be heard telling the president.

Poroshenko gave Francis a small glass sculpture of angel, made by Ukrainian artisans and accented with pieces of Ukrainian amber.

“I pray that this gift will remind you of Ukraine,” said the president.

Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said Francis had first greeted Poroshenko during their encounter in the Ukrainian language. The pontiff learned the greeting as a young boy while serving Mass for an Ukranian priest living in Buenos Aires, said Lombardi.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac. Translation of Poroshenko’s Ukrainian to English was made by Konrad Sawicki, editor of the Polish “Więź” quarterly.]

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