Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to the Vatican Saturday and met with the Pope for the first time since the Russian invasion to discuss the “humanitarian gestures” of the Pontiff in assisting with the repatriation of Ukrainian children from Russia and Crimea where it is estimated that 19,500 children have been forcibly held since the start of the war in February 2022.
While the 40-minute meeting started off normally with Zelensky being escorted into the Vatican wearing his trademark sweatshirt and greeting the Pope with his hand over his heart, things took a turn for the bizarre once inside a Vatican studio.
After receiving a small sculpture of an olive branch from the Pontiff, a universal symbol for peace, the Ukrainian president gave the Pope an icon of the Mother of God, something one would expect to be given to the Pontiff, only the icon Zelensky offered had a black void where the baby Jesus should have been. The icon is a work titled “Loss 2022-58” by Ukrainian artist Oleksiy Revika and is reminiscent of the parody of the Iberian Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos.
According to Revika’s Facebook page, the artist says of the piece “this is a work about the loss of Ukrainian children in the aggressive war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine. Glory to Ukraine!”
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Zelensky also gave the Pope a bulletproof vest that had been worn by a Ukrainian soldier and afterward had been painted with an image of the Madonna on the front.
Prior to the meeting with the Pope, Zelensky met with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni who had pledged full military and financial aid to Kyiv and reiterated that Italy would fully back Ukraine’s bid to join the EU.
Zelensky took to Twitter after meeting with the Pontiff and said, ” I asked (the Pope) to condemn Russian crimes in Ukraine. Because there can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor.” The president also tweeted that “We must make every effort to return them home,” referring to the reportedly almost 20,000 Ukrainian children that have been taken to Russia.
Despite Zelensky’s request of the Pope to help Kyiv repatriate its children from Russia, the Ukrainian president is doing nothing to help a faction of Ukrainian Orthodox monks back home.
In March, Zelensky tried to have the monks with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) removed from the sprawling monastic complex of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery, or the Monastery of the Caves.
The monks lease the historic site from the government but as part of a crackdown on the UOC, claiming that it has ties to Russia via the Russian Orthodox Church since the war started, the Ukrainian government has tried to have the monks evicted claiming that they violated their lease by making alterations to the monastery complex.
The monks have rebuffed Zelensky and the government’s claims and have insisted that they have been targeted due to the UOC’s historic ties with Russia, despite the UOC condemning the invasion from the beginning and declaring its independence from Moscow. The Ukrainian government has also raided numerous holy sites since the start of the war and has sanctioned the Lavra’s abbot for allegedly engaging in pro-Moscow activities.
In April, Zelensky also forced a senior UOC Bishop to be placed on house arrest and wear an ankle monitor for allegedly justifying the Russian invasion – an act that has been made a criminal offense in Ukraine.
Despite Zelensky’s attack on the UOC and those of faith in Ukraine, he also requested that the Pope support Kyiv with its 10-step peace plan – a hard ask for a Pontiff from a war-battered president who appears to have started a war against religion at home.
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