The Vatican said Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis on Monday discussed the need for talks to resolve the Syria conflict, as international officials met in Geneva to discuss a date for a peace conference.
The two leaders talked about the urgent need “to promote concrete initiatives for a peaceful solution to the conflict, favouring negotiation,” the Vatican said, following a 35-minute audience in the Apostolic Palace.
It said in a statement that they agreed any solution should involve “the various ethnic and religious groups, recognising their essential role in society.”
The Kremlin chief and the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics also discussed “the urgency of the need to bring an end to the violence and to ensure necessary humanitarian assistance for the population”.
Pope Francis has been a powerful voice against an armed international intervention in the Syria conflict and has voiced concern about the plight of Christian minorities there and in other parts of the Middle East.
United Nations and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on Monday huddled with US and Russian officials in Geneva in a bid to set a date for a peace conference on the conflict in Syria, which is widely expected for January.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said that Putin had also brought greetings for Pope Francis from Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill but had not invited the pope to Moscow — an elusive diplomatic breakthrough.
Francis has put particular emphasis on improving relations with the Orthodox world ever since being elected in March and Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox, was present at his inauguration.
This was Putin’s fourth meeting with a pope after audiences with late pope John Paul II in 2000 and 2003 and in 2007 with now pope emeritus Benedict XVI, who stepped down earlier this year in a momentous move.
Once strained ties between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches have improved greatly in recent years and the head of the Russian church’s external relations department said an historic meeting between the pope and the patriarch was now “more and more realistic”.
Speaking in an interview with French daily Le Figaro published on Monday, Metropolitan Hilarion said Russia supported the pope’s drive for collegiality in governing the Roman Catholic Church and his appeals for Christians in the Middle East.
“All this makes the possibility of a future meeting between the pope and the patriarch more and more realistic… As for the possible place and date, there has been no bilateral discussion on this,” he said.
Putin later on Tuesday will have dinner with Berlusconi, who has denied reports that the Kremlin leader could offer him diplomatic papers that would allow him to flee a growing number of legal woes.
Putin will then head to the city of Trieste in northeast Italy on Tuesday for talks with Letta, where several business deals between the two are due to be signed and a 1.0-billion-euro ($1.4 billion) joint investment fund is to be announced, the Kremlin said.