Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican next week, the Holy See announced on Thursday. The June 10 visit will be the first between the two leaders since the start of the Ukraine conflict in March 2014, which, along with the ongoing conflict in Syria, will likely top the agenda in talks between Putin and Francis, the Associated Press reported.
Putin is expected to make the visit as part of his trip to see Russia’s pavilion at the Expo world’s fair in Milan on June 10, which has been designated as Russia’s national day. The meeting is set to take place that afternoon in Rome, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi confirmed Thursday.
The Russian president and the Catholic leader last met in November 2013, prior to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the subsequent violence that erupted in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that has severely strained Russia’s relations with the West, as casualties have risen to over 6,400. The Vatican has since been careful to avoid taking a strong stance on either side of the hostilities. Francis has instead condemned the conflict as a “war between Christians” while appealing for dialogue as the “only possible path to peace” in comments earlier this year.
Discussions between Putin and Francis during their last meeting centered on the conflict in Syria, where Moscow continues to support the regime of President Bashar Assad. The Argentine pontiff has been attempting to marshal Orthodox Christian leaders around the world to unite in condemning violence against Christians by Islamic militant groups in the Middle East.
That visit had also raised hopes that long-strained relations between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church would be improved. Moscow has been accusing the Roman Catholic Church of attempting to poach Russian Orthodox believers since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Tensions between the two churches have been exacerbated by feuds over Catholic properties confiscated by Joseph Stalin and granted to the Orthodox Church, particularly as Catholics have attempted to reclaim these properties over the past decades.
While Putin’s last visit with the pope was seen as a sign of warming relations, the Russian president did not extend an invitation to Francis to visit Russia, in what would have been a landmark trip by the Catholic leader. Neither of Francis’ predecessors were able to achieve their long-held goal of visiting Russia and meeting with the Russian patriarch. Such a visit would require an invitation not only from Putin but also from the Russian Orthodox Church, which did not extend an invitation to either Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI.