Pope Francis has sent Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi on a two-day peace mission to Kyiv to sound out government authorities in a bid to help end the war in Ukraine.
The Vatican announced Cardinal Zuppi's visit in a short statement this Monday, which many observers see as an uphill effort to get peace negotiations started.
The Holy See says the main purpose of the two-day visit is "to listen carefully to Ukrainian authorities on the possible ways to reach a just peace and support humanitarian gestures that may help ease tensions".
It is not clear if Zuppi – who is the Archbishop of Bologna and head of the Italian Bishops Conference – will meet President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Zelensky met the Pope at the Vatican on 13 May and later appeared cool to the prospects of any papal initiative that would put Ukraine on an equal footing with Russia, which invaded its neighbour on 24 February 2022.
Cardinal Zuppi is headed to Ukraine, tasked by Pope Francis with “listening in depth to the Ukrainian authorities about possible ways to achieve a just peace.”— Vatican News (@VaticanNews) June 5, 2023
Last month, Zuppi told reporters that he did not foresee a mediation in the strict sense of the word but that he was ready to "do anything" to help ease tensions.
"We can't watch a war without at least saying that we are close to the victims and seeking in every way possible to alleviate the consequences," he said.
Kyiv 'cool' on Vatican overtures
At the meeting in May, Zelensky asked the pope to back Kyiv's peace plan, which Zelensky has repeatedly said is not open to negotiation.
The plan calls for the restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity, the withdrawal of Russian troops and cessation of hostilities.
In an interview in May, the pope skirted the issue, saying an eventual return by Russia of occupied territories is a "political problem" to be resolved by both sides.
Diplomats have said that Ukraine would also be cool to the idea of putting a meeting between Zuppi and Zelensky and an eventual one between Zuppi and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the same plane.
"There can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor," Zelensky said after his meeting with Pope Francis.
Repatriation of Ukrainian children
The Vatican statement's mention of "humanitarian gestures" on Monday appeared to be a reference to Kyiv's request – and the Vatican's willingness – to help with the repatriation of Ukrainian children.
Kyiv estimates nearly 19,500 children have been taken to Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea since February 2022, in what it condemns as illegal deportations.
Zuppi hails from the Sant' Egidio Community, a Rome-based peace and justice group which has been instrumental in several peace negotiations, particularly in Africa.