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Pope Francis on Sunday called Russia’s “military operation” in Ukraine a “war” that is causing “death, destruction and misery,” and said he was sending two cardinals to Ukraine. Francis was earlier criticized for not directly blaming Russia and President Vladimir Putin for the bloodshed.

“In Ukraine rivers of blood and tears are flowing,” the Pontiff said during his Sunday address at St. Peter’s Square, Reuters reported. “This is not only a military operation but a war which is leading to death, destruction and misery,” Francis added, referring to Moscow’s description of the conflict as a military operation rather than a conventional “war.”

“War is madness; please stop, look at this cruelty!” he declared, telling the faithful that he was dispatching two cardinals to the war-torn country as a sign of “the presence of the Pope.”

Before the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, Francis called repeatedly for peace, but refused to publicly call out Russia as an aggressor. Likewise when fighting broke out earlier this month he stuck to the Vatican’s traditional neutrality, calling for the evacuation of civilians from combat zones, urging both Russia and Ukraine to negotiate, and offering his services as a mediator.

Francis has spoken to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky by phone, and last week met with Russia’s ambassador to the Holy See. However, a readout of the meeting simply said that Francis visited the ambassador to “express his concern about the war.”

Referring to the conflict as a “war” is the closest Francis has come to ascribing blame to Russia.

The pope’s neutrality isn’t shared by all of the Vatican’s top officials. In interviews with several Italian newspapers this week, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin described the war as being “unleashed by Russia against Ukraine,” AP reported. Elsewhere, some European Catholics have taken a similarly accusatory tone.

The head of the Polish bishops’ conference, Stanisław Gądecki, wrote to the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, this week, urging Kirill to “appeal to Vladimir Putin to stop the senseless warfare against the Ukrainian people.”

“I ask you in the most humble way to call for the withdrawal of the Russian troops from the sovereign state that is Ukraine,” he continued, asking Kirill “to appeal to Russian soldiers not to take part in this unjust war.”

Pope Francis is not the only international figure to offer to mediate between Ukraine and Russia. After two rounds of peace talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials in Belarus failed to halt fighting, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow on Saturday for talks in the Kremlin with Putin, before speaking to Zelensky by phone. Returning to Tel Aviv on Sunday, Bennett told a cabinet meeting that resolving the Ukraine conflict is the “moral duty” of Israel.

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By Davies

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