ROME — The Russian government has protested Pope Francis's latest comments on the war in Ukraine, in which he claimed that the "cruelest" soldiers are not Russian but outsiders like "the Chechens" and "the Buryati" who fight on the Russian side.
While the pontiff seemed to be trying to mitigate the blame on native Russian troops in an interview published Monday with the Jesuit-run magazine America , Moscow read his comments as an attempt to provoke division in the country.
Russia's state-owned news agency TASS declared the pope was guilty of "race-baiting" and Deputy Speaker of Russia's Federation Council Konstantin Kosachev said the pontiff's statement draws "a dividing line between peoples and religions."
"It is totally unacceptable in today's world and I can only regret that Pope Francis made an enormous mistake in this case, which can only have a negative impact on the conflict and will in no way help the parties find common ground and a way out of the crisis through reconciliation," Kosachev said.
A spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, said the pope's words went beyond "Russophobia" and were an outrageous "perversion of the truth."
"We are one family with Buryats, Chechens, and other representatives of our multinational and multi-confessional country," Zakharova wrote on Twitter.
The Kremlin's ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeev, told TASS that he had filed an official protest with the Vatican over the "strange remarks" Pope Francis had made.
"Russia is outraged at the insinuation of alleged atrocities by Russian service people during the course of the special military operation in Ukraine," he said.
"The unity of the multi-ethnic Russian people is unshakable, and nobody will ever challenge that," Avdeev added.
The pope's remarks in America came in response to the question of why he never mentions Russian president Vladimir Putin by name in his criticisms of the war.
"Certainly, the one who invades is the Russian state. This is very clear," Francis said. "Sometimes I try not to specify so as not to offend and rather condemn in general, although it is well known whom I am condemning. It is not necessary that I put a name and surname."
"Why do I not name Putin? Because it is not necessary; it is already known," he said. "However, sometimes people latch onto a detail. Everyone knows my stance, with Putin or without Putin, without naming him."
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