Francis meets a tardy Putin, as U.S. official calls for tougher talk

Vatican City — Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Wednesday, in a visit being scrutinized for meaning and significance as Russia continues taking unilateral military action in Ukraine.

The Vatican press office released an unusually lengthy description of the encounter, saying the discussions between the two leaders were “dedicated principally to the conflict in Ukraine and the situation in the Middle East.”

Putin and Francis spoke privately for about 50 minutes before exchanging gifts and making brief remarks in front of reporters present for the event.

The Vatican statement, issued by Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, said that on the issue of Ukraine Francis “affirmed that there needs to be commitment to a sincere and great effort to realize peace.”

“The importance of reconstructing a climate of dialogue was agreed upon and [also] that all the parties may be committed to carrying out the Minsk accords,” the statement continues.

“Also essential is the commitment to engage the grave humanitarian situation, guaranteeing access to humanitarian agents and with the contribution of all the parties for a progressive relaxation of tensions,” it states.

The meeting, Putin’s second with the pontiff, came as one U.S. diplomat said he hoped the Vatican might use the occasion to “continue to express its concern” about Russia’s recent actions, “particularly about what’s happening in Ukraine.”

“Maybe this is an opportunity where the Holy Father, privately, can raise those concerns,” said U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Ken Hackett, speaking earlier in the day to reporters at a briefing about a new inter-governmental agreement between the U.S. and the Holy See.

Hackett said that he and U.S. officials think the Vatican “could say something more about the concern on territorial integrity” over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Francis was seen as being cordial but not especially warm during the event. After their discussions, Putin gave the pope a gold-thread embroidered portrait of the Russian Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which was destroyed in the Soviet era and rebuilt in the 1990s.

The pontiff gave Putin a medallion representing an angel, a gift he has given to several world leaders.

Presenting the medallion to the Russian leader, Francis said: “This is a medallion made by an artist of the last century. It is an angel of peace that wins all wars and speaks of peace and solidarity between peoples.”

Mentioning that he was also giving Putin his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), the pope told Putin: “This is in association with the joy of the Gospel that has much religious, human, geo-political, and social reflections.”

Upon leaving the encounter, Putin told the pontiff: “It was a great pleasure [and] honor to meet you.”

Putin, known for a certain tardiness in his appearances, arrived more than an hour late for the meeting with Francis. He was flying in from the northern Italian city of Milan, where he was celebrating his country’s national day at an ongoing world’s fair called the Expo.

With the meeting between the leaders scheduled for 5:00 PM in Rome, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the prefect of the papal household, went outside to meet Putin at about 5:25. With the Russian president not arriving until 6:10, Gänswein was seen rolling on his feet in an apparent bid to pass the time or ward off sleepiness.

Putin had earlier in the day also been about an hour late in meeting with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, when the two met to participate together at the Expo. Renzi joked there that he was afraid the Russian president would offer him drinks at Russia’s fair pavilion.

Putin was leaving Francis Wednesday to meet Italian President Sergio Mattarella before continuing on to meet disgraced ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a man with whom the Russian is said to have passed a few early mornings.

Earlier Wednesday, Hackett mentioned that Putin has said before that he is concerned about Christians being persecuted in the Middle East, particularly in Syria.

“I recall that President Putin talked about a concern for Christians in the Middle East, particularly in Syria,” said the U.S. ambassador. “I’d like to see if he’s got a proposal.”

“That would be very useful,” he said. “Putin has a role … to step up and address some of the major issues.”

The Vatican statement on the meeting said the pope and Putin had spoken of the need to urgently pursue peace in the Middle East with “concrete interest of the international community, guaranteeing in the meantime the necessary conditions for life for all the parts of society, including religious minorities and in particular Christians.”

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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