Both North Caucasian opposition figures and Russian officials have criticised Pope Francis for claiming that ‘the cruelest’ troops fighting against Ukraine were ‘Chechens, the Buryati, and so on’, an apparent reference to ethnic minorities across Russia.
In an interview with the Christian magazine America on 28 November, Pope Francis commented on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, amidst questions on abortion, race, and sexual abuse.
After mentioning the ‘cruelty’ of Russian troops in Ukraine, the pontiff claimed that ‘the cruelest [troops] are perhaps those who are of Russia but not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryati, and so on’.
The statement was fiercely criticised in Russia and the North Caucasus, with both state-aligned and opposition figures objecting to Francis’ allegation.
Addressing Pope Francis, Anzor Maskhadov, a representative of the Sheikh Mansur battalion, which is fighting for the Ukrainian International Legion, described the repressions of the Russian state against the Chechen people, the ‘demonisation’ of Chechens by Russian media, and violations of human rights under Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed leadership.
‘My land is occupied and the Russians established a dictatorship controlled by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his puppet [Head of Chechnya Ramzan] Kadyrov’, said Maskhadov, who is the son of the late president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Aslan Maskhadov.
[Read more on OC Media: ‘We have only one enemy — this is Russia’: the Chechens taking up arms for Ukraine]
‘Today Russia is fighting against Ukraine and Putin [is] killing Ukrainians as he was killing the Chechens before. Nothing [has] changed in Russia,’ he added. ‘In this war against Ukraine, Putin uses other nations: such as Chechens, Daghestanis, Buryats, and others.’
Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February, the Pope has made several statements calling for peace. However, he has faced criticism from many in Ukraine and in the West for not being explicit enough in condemning Russia for invading their neighbour.
On 16 March, the pontiff had a video call with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. According to the Pope, the Patriarch began the meeting by reading out reasons justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in response to which Francis stated that ‘a Patriarch can’t lower himself to become Putin’s altar boy’.
This prompted anger in Russia, with the Russian Orthodox Church declaring that ‘Pope Francis chose the wrong tone to convey the content of this conversation’.
‘A victim of propaganda’
State representatives in Russia were also swift to criticise the statement, with the press secretary for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs describing the comments as ‘perversion’.
‘Remember, in the 1990s [and] the beginning of the 2000s, we were told exactly the opposite, that it was Russians, Slavs, who are torturing the peoples of the Caucasus, and now we are being told that it is the peoples of the Caucasus who are torturing the Russians’, she said.
Head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, called Pope Francis ‘a victim of propaganda’.
‘Yes, we are zealous in protecting our motherland, religion and people. We call on the enemy to surrender and our citizens to stand up for themselves’, wrote Kadyrov.
Mufti Salakh Mezhiev, chair of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Chechen Republic, added when speaking to Russian state media RIA that ‘Chechens are cruel only towards enemies, but merciful towards peaceful people’.
Russian Ambassador to the Vatican Aleksandr Avdeev said that he had visited the diplomatic service of the Holy See to object to the pontiff's statements.