Putin Ally Criticizes Pope for 'Offensive and Racist' Comments About Troops

Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov has added to Russian condemnation of Pope Francis' criticism of the conduct of Moscow's troops in their invasion of Ukraine.

Vladimir Solovyov described as "unacceptable and fundamentally racist" the pontiff's comments that some minority groups of soldiers fighting for Russia had behaved worse than others.

After being asked by the Jesuit magazine America about the perception that he had been reluctant to directly condemn Russia for the war, the Pope said he had received "much information about the cruelty of the troops."

He told the publication that "the cruelest are perhaps those who are of Russia but are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryats and so on."

Pope Francis
Pope Francis gestures during an audience to members of Schools of Peace at the Paul VI hall at the Vatican on November 28, 2022. He has been criticized by Russia for an interview in which he said Chechens and Buryats in the Russian army were the "cruelest" of Moscow's fighters in Ukraine. Tiziana FABI/Getty Images

Chechens are an ethnic group from the predominantly Muslim republic of Chechnya, in the southwest of Russia. Buryats, a Mongol ethnic group indigenous to Buryatia, in eastern Siberia, traditionally follow Buddhist and shamanic belief systems.

The response from Moscow has been to interpret the pope's comments as a slight against the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional aspects of Russia, where the predominant religion is Orthodox Christianity.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said the pope had fallen victim to the "perseverance of the foreign media."

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded in a Telegram post that the comments signified "no longer Russophobia," but "a perversion on a level I can't even name."

Solovyov also leapt on the comments in his radio show as a chance to make some sectarian comments about the Catholic Church, which separated from the eastern Orthodox churches during Christendom's schism of 1054.

"Orthodoxy differs from Catholicism like life differs from death," Solvyov said, quoting the Russian philosopher and theologian Nikolai Berdyaev, who died in 1948.

"Catholicism in the form in which it was reborn and now exists brings death—the death of Russian civilization," said Solvyov, who accused the pontiff of offending Islam, Lamaism and Buddhism.

"The pope allowed himself to make absolutely unacceptable and fundamentally racist remarks about the Chechen and Buryat nations offending their historical and religious roots," he added in the clip tweeted on Thursday by Francis Scarr of BBC Monitoring.

Newsweek has contacted the Vatican for comment.

In the wide-ranging interview with the magazine, the pope also responded to criticism that he was hadn't condemned Russia. "Everyone knows my stance, with Putin or without Putin, without naming him."

Soon after Moscow invaded, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, portrayed the war as a means of fighting against the decadence of the West. In a sermon three days after the war started, he said Ukraine and Belarus are part of the "Russian lands" and called the Ukrainians defending their country "forces of evil."

In September, he told followers that "sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins."

His religious justification for the war provoked outrage in the Orthodox faith worldwide, with his leadership condemned by the U.S.-based Orthodox Public Affairs Committee (OPAC). He is known for his close ties with Vladimir Putin and OPAC said in October that he was a "willing stooge" of the Russian president and a "cheerleader of war."