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Russia calls its invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation” to “de-Nazify” the country and root out nationalists it considers dangerous. Ukraine and its allies accuse Moscow of an unprovoked war to grab territory from its pro-Western neighbour.

Since the invasion began in February, Pope Francis has been increasingly forceful in his condemnation of Russia’s actions.

Last month, he said Ukrainians were suffering a “martyrdom of aggression” and compared the effects of the war on Ukrainians to the “terrible genocide” of the 1930s, when Soviet leader Josef Stalin inflicted famine on the country.

Pope Francis has several times offered the Vatican’s mediation to resolve the conflict but his increased criticism of Russia has made this highly unlikely.

In an interview last month with the Jesuit magazine America, Pope Francis spoke of what he called the cruelty of Russian forces in Ukraine.

“Generally, the cruellest are perhaps those who are of Russia but are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryati and so on. Certainly, the one who invades is the Russian state. This is very clear,” said Pope Francis.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the comments “un-Christian” and incomprehensible.