ROME—Russia is calling Pope Francis a race-baiting liar over comments he made during an interview with the leading Jesuit magazine America. Francis—who drew scorn early on in the Russian invasion of Ukraine for not naming Russia as the invader—has lately amped up his criticism over the war.
Francis told the magazine, “Generally, the cruelest are perhaps those who are of Russia but are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryati and so on.”
Konstantin Kosachev, the deputy speaker of Russia’s Federation Council said the pope calling certain ethnic groups within Russia’s fighting core “cruel,” were “completely false.”
Kosachev shot back that the pope was speaking out of turn. “From my point of view, the statement is completely unacceptable both in form and content,” he said, according to TASS. “As for its form, it’s not for the leader of the Roman Catholic Church to comment on a situation that neither the state (the Vatican) nor the Roman Catholic Church has anything to do with, I would like to make it clear.” He added, “It’s surprising that they came from one of the leaders of Christianity.”
Kosachev also said the pope had drawn a line between people and religion and hinted he may even be making things worse on the battlefield. “It is totally unacceptable in today’s world and I can only regret that Pope Francis made an enormous mistake in this case, which can only have a negative impact on the conflict and will in no way help the parties find common ground and a way out of the crisis through reconciliation,” he said in a statement.
Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova chimed in against the pontiff. “This is no longer Russophobia, it’s a perversion on a level I can’t even name,” she wrote on her Telegram channel. “We are one family with Buryats, Chechens and other representatives of our multinational and multi-confessional country.”
The spat will certainly dampen hopes Francis has expressed about wanting to play a role in peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. He recently offered to travel to both Moscow and Kyiv and to offer Vatican property as a neutral place to meet.
The magazine also asked Francis why he has never uttered Vladimir Putin’s name in the nearly year long conflict. “Why do I not name Putin? Because it is not necessary,” he said. “It is already known. However, sometimes people latch onto a detail. Everyone knows my stance, with Putin or without Putin, without naming him.”
Francis has used his weekly audiences on Wednesdays and Sundays to point out the atrocities suffered by the Ukrainian population. “When I speak about Ukraine, I speak of a people who are martyred,” he told the magazine, echoing comments he made last week to the public. “If you have a martyred people, you have someone who martyrs them.”
The pope went on to again defend his reluctance to point directly to Russia. “Certainly, the one who invades is the Russian state. This is very clear,” he said. “Sometimes I try not to specify so as not to offend and rather condemn in general, although it is well known whom I am condemning. It is not necessary that I put a name and surname.”
Francis has also previously offended Ukraine by calling Darya Dugina, a Russian propagandist and daughter of top ally to Vladimir Putin, an “innocent victim of war.”
The Vatican did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter.