VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first-ever meeting this week mostly focused on the Middle East, particularly on the ongoing Syrian conflict.
The president met with the Holy Father Nov. 25, amid Putin’s short visit to Italy — along with 11 ministers of his cabinet — to sign commercial agreements and have institutional meetings with government officials.
According to a Vatican Press Office statement, Putin “expressed thanks for the letter addressed to him by the Holy Father on the occasion of the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg,” in which the Pope urged global leaders during the September event to pay attention to the situation in Syria.
A source in the State Secretariat said that Pope Francis and Putin mostly spoke about Syria and the Middle East during the 35 minutes of conversation, conducted with the help of two translators.
Pope Francis had sent a letter to Putin on Sept. 3, saying that “the leaders of the G20 cannot remain indifferent to the dramatic situation of the beloved Syrian people, which has lasted far too long and even risks bringing greater suffering to a region bitterly tested by strife and needful of peace.”
At the time, a military intervention to Syria seemed unavoidable, and Pope Francis called a day of fasting and prayer on Sept. 7.
More than 115,000 Syrians have been killed, and more than 2 million have fled the country, which has been entangled in a violent civil war for more than two years.
The Vatican’s statement on the meeting stressed that “emphasis was placed on the urgency of the need to bring an end to the violence and to ensure necessary humanitarian assistance for the population, as well as to promote concrete initiatives for a peaceful solution to the conflict, favoring negotiation and involving the various ethnic and religious groups, recognizing their essential role in society.”
Putin’s visit to the Vatican is not his first — he met with Pope John Paul II in 2000 and 2003 and had an audience with Pope Benedict in 2007.
The Vatican Press Office reported that Putin and Pope Francis also discussed “the critical situation faced by Christians in some regions of the world” and spoke of questions of common interest like “life of the Catholic community in Russia, revealing the fundamental contribution of Christianity in society.”
Before the meeting, it was rumored that Putin might invite Pope Francis to Russia, thus realizing the ecumenical dream of a meeting between the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis.
Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Office, said in a media briefing Nov. 25 that “Putin did not make any invitation” and that “this is normal, since it is not his [role], inviting the Pope to Russia.”
Putin greeted the Pope on behalf of Patriarch Kirill, who has championed ecumenical dialogue and aimed to improve relations with Rome.
When still president of the department for the external relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, Patriarch Kirill met three times with Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican from 2005 to 2007, and he was one of the main drafters of the social teaching of the Orthodox Church.
The bilateral relations between the Holy See and Russia are good, as much as the ecumenical relations between the Church of Rome and the Moscow Patriarchate.
In Rome over the past weeks, Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion has indicated the possibility of an ecumenical meeting between Pope Francis and the Patriarch Kirill in a neutral territory.
Commenting on his words, Archbishop of Moscow Paolo Pezzi said that he finds that “the wish of organizing this meeting is growing, and this is a new fact. [It] came out by the meeting between Archbishop Hilarion and Pope Francis” that took place earlier this month on Nov. 13.
At the end of this week’s discussion with Putin, Pope Francis gave the Russian leader a mosaic representing the Vatican Gardens, while Putin gave Pope Francis a classical icon, the “Madonna of Vladimir,” also known as “Madonna of Tenderness.”
Putin asked Pope Francis if he liked the icon, and, after the Pope’s affirmative answer, he made the Orthodox Sign of the Cross and kissed the icon. The Pope kissed the icon after him.