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Zelenskyy meets with Pope Francis and Meloni in Rome

The state visit was the Ukrainian president's first since the Russian invasion last February. Support for Ukraine has previously divided Italy's ruling right-wing coalition government.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shakes hands with Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni at Chigi Palace in Rome
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni at Chigi Palace in Rome, on Saturday.Alessandra Tarantino / AP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy touched down in Rome for meetings with Pope Francis and Italian officials on Saturday, in his first visit to the country since the beginning of the Russian invasion. 

Meeting the Pope at the Vatican, Zelenskyy put his hand on his heart and said it was a “great honour.”

In his 40-minute audience that Zelenskyy said “could really affect history, could really help stop the evil of aggression.” He added that he asked for support on his peace plan, food insecurity, forced deportations and prisoner release, according to a statement he released on Telegram Saturday.

“During the meeting with Pope Francis, I focused on stopping Russian military aggression and restoring peace,” said Zelenskyy. “I asked to comprehensively contribute to the implementation of the Ukrainian formula of peace, in particular in matters of food security, the release of prisoners and deported persons, and the restoration of justice. Since the war is on the territory of Ukraine, the peace plan can only be Ukrainian.” 

He added that another topic of the meeting was  on the issue of the deportation of Ukrainian children. In April, Pope Francis announced a secret peace “mission” in the Russia-Ukraine conflict to facilitate the return of Ukrainian children taken to Russia during the war in a program of forced relocation and re-education that the International Criminal Court has previously designated as a war crime

In a statement, the Vatican no additional detail about the pontiff’s plan or his conversation with Zelenskyy was given, but it said “the focus was first of all on the  current war in Ukraine and the urgent concerns associated with it.”

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Pope Francis has regularly referred to Ukraine and its people as “martyred” and has called for the fighting to end. Ukrainian diplomats have often complained that he hasn’t come down hard enough on Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an effort to avoid alienating Russia from the Church.

Zelenskyy also met with Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni and head of state Sergio Mattarella in his hours-long trip to Rome on Saturday.

Meloni, who staunchly supports military aid for Ukraine, said Italy would back the country “360 degrees for all the time necessary and beyond” according to the Associated Press.

“The message is clear and simple,”  she said after her meeting with Zelenskyy, according to the Associated Press “The future of Ukraine is a future of peace and freedom. And it’s the future of Europe, a future of peace and freedom, for which there are no other possible solutions.″

On Telegram, Zelenskyy added “Italy will continue to support Ukraine — as much as it is necessary for us to stand up and protect our people and our territory.  We agree with Giorgia, Madam Prime Minister, on our new joint defense steps. There are good things we can do together to protect the sky. There are good things we can do together to protect the earth. We agreed on weapons and anti-aircraft defense.”

 Italian officials pledged open-ended military and financial support as well as stronger backing for Ukraine’s cherished aim to join the European Union. Since the war began, Italy has contributed about 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in military and financial aid, as well as humanitarian assistance.

Meloni last met with Zelenskyy in Kyiv in February, shortly before the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.

There, she reiterated her support for the country, after former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, blamed Zelenskyy for the war in Ukraine. 

Divided opinion within Italy’s ruling right-wing coalition over support for Ukraine has frequently threatened the stability of government.

Both Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, who serves as Italy’s deputy prime minister, have voiced strong criticisms of Western sanctions against Russia. Meloni, who leads the far-right Brothers of Italy Party, has previously threatened to trash the coalition that made her prime minister with any party that did not see support for Ukraine as a cornerstone of Italy’s foreign policy. 

After his meetings in Italy, Zelenskyy travelled to Germany where he met with Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Andriy Yermak, Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, announced on Telegram Saturday that Germany will provide a new €2.7 billion ($3 billion) aid package to Ukraine.