Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he is thankful to Pope Francis for a phone call in which the leader of the Catholic Church told him he is praying for peace as Russian troops continue to attack the former Soviet nation. Four days of fighting has led to hundreds of civilian deaths and displaced thousands of Ukrainians.
President Zelensky wrote on Twitter Saturday that he “thanked Pope Francis @Pontifex for praying for peace in Ukraine and a ceasefire. The Ukrainian people feel the spiritual support of His Holiness,” The Catholic Telegraph reported.
The Ukrainian Embassy to the Holy See said Francis spoke to Zelensky on the phone on Saturday. “The Holy Father expressed his deepest sorrow for the tragic events taking place in our country,” the embassy wrote on Twitter.
Ukraine’s health minister announced Saturday that at least 198 civilians, including three children, had been killed by Russian forces. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs believes the “real figures are considerably higher” as officials assessing the situation have yet to confirm other reports.
More than 120,000 people have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the largest ground war in Europe since World War II.
In a departure from diplomatic protocol, the pontiff on Friday paid a surprise visit to the Russian embassy to the Vatican to express his concern over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Reuters reported.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni was quoted as saying that Francis spent more than a half-hour at the embassy. “He went to express his concern over the war.”
The Russian ambassador was quoted as saying that the pope “called for the protection of children, the protection of the sick and suffering, and the protection of people.”
As missile attacks and gunfights between invading Russian troops and Ukrainian soldiers and civilians carry on in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, local churches are helping people take shelter in their buildings.
Fr. Vyacheslav S.A.C., a pallottine priest, has posted videos on social media of his church providing shelter to families in an underground bunker surrounded by wooden furniture and minimal personal belongings, according to Reuters.
Vyacheslav said the church has space to provide temporary shelter for up to 50 people, and 27 children are among those taking refuge.
Meanwhile, Russia said Sunday that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett offered to mediate to end the fighting in Ukraine.
The Kremlin said Bennett spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone telling him that Israel was ready to help, The Associated Press reported, adding that it was not known whether the Russian leader had accepted the offer.