ROME (AP) — The Vatican is pressing ahead with a plan to try to reunite Ukrainian children taken to Russia during the war with their families, a senior Vatican official said. The effort follows an explicit request by Ukraine and Russia has expressed an apparent willingness to engage in the process.
The Vatican official spoke to reporters about the plan late Thursday, after Pope Francis’ peace envoy, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, returned to the Vatican from Washington. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, according to Vatican protocol.
Zuppi, a veteran of the Catholic Church’s peace initiatives, had met with President Joe Biden on Tuesday, following earlier missions to Kyiv and Moscow. In the Russian capital, Zuppi met with one of President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy advisers, Yuri Ushakov, as well as Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights.
Zuppi is next headed to Beijing, the Vatican official said.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a closed-door meeting, confirmed that a large part of Biden’s discussion with Zuppi concerned the Vatican effort to return Ukrainian children. The official noted that Biden, a Catholic, welcomed the Vatican’s peace efforts.
The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant in late March for Putin and Lvova-Belova, accusing them of abducting children from Ukraine. Russian officials have denied any forced transfers of children, saying some Ukrainian children are in foster care.
The Vatican’s initiative follows a similar one involving Russia-Ukraine prisoner swaps in which the Holy See delivered lists of prisoners to be exchanged, Francis has said. It is unclear how many prisoners have been exchanged under the Vatican initiative.
The Vatican official said Russia had expressed a willingness to engage in a similar “mechanism,” or process of exchanging lists involving the return of Ukrainian children.
It remains unclear what, if any, conditions Russia has placed on the children’s return, how many might be involved, when the operation might get under way and other details. But the official noted the significance that the person most involved in the issue, Lvova-Belova, had met with Zuppi in June.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made very clear to Francis during their meeting at the Vatican in May that Kyiv had no interest in the Holy See’s offer to facilitate peace negotiations. But Zelenskyy expressly asked for the Vatican’s help to bring the children back.
Zuppi is next expected to go to Beijing, to round out the fourth part of the Vatican mission. The official said China had expressed a willingness to receive him, but no date has yet been set.
In Washington, Zuppi delivered a letter from the pope to Biden, “emphasizing the pope’s sorrow for the suffering caused by the war,” the Vatican said in an official statement about the trip. The meeting lasted over an hour and Biden assured Zuppi of “full readiness to support initiatives in the humanitarian field, particularly for children and the most fragile people, both to respond to this urgency and to foster pathways to peace.”
The White House, for its part, said Biden and Zuppi discussed “the Holy See’s efforts providing humanitarian aid to address the widespread suffering caused by Russia’s continuing aggression in Ukraine, as well as the Vatican’s advocacy for the return of forcibly deported Ukrainian children.”
Also in Washington, Zuppi described the Vatican reunification plan to members of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. Zuppi’s delegation also attended the Senate Prayer Breakfast “during which Cardinal Zuppi had the opportunity to brief the participants on the meetings he had during the various stages of his peace mission,” the Vatican statement said.
Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.