Why Pope Francis Was Wrong About Ethnic Minorities In Russia

By Dina Newman

In his recent interview to five editors of the America Magazine, which describes itself as The Jesuit Review of Faith and Culture, Pope Francis talked about “martyred” Ukraine but suggested that ethnic non-Russians “are perhaps the cruellest” among the troops invading Ukraine:  

“When I speak about Ukraine, I speak of a people who are martyred. If you have a martyred people, you have someone who martyrs them. When I speak about Ukraine, I speak about the cruelty because I have much information about the cruelty of the troops that come in. Generally, the cruelest 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. 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.” 

The Pope’s comment echoed the racist trope about non-Slavic “savage warriors” which appeared in the media earlier this year, and which MDI has called out

The five editors who spoke to the Pope did not challenge him over his apparent racist bias against Chechens and Buryat. Later, the magazine ignored the Pope’s controversial statement on its social media, focussing instead on denouncing the polarisation of the Catholic Church and the possible ordination for women.  

If the America Magazine and the Vatican hoped that the Pope’s racist comments would go unnoticed, they were wrong. Outside the Vatican, journalists and activists have voiced their protest. MDI and partners published an open letter to the Pope. 

In the UK, The Guardian looked into the origins of the racist myth about cruel non-Slavic minorities, quoting an independent Buryat activist, Alexandra Garmazhapova.  

Garmazhapova, a Buryat activist with a loyal following, posted a video condemning the Pope’s statement.

The Ukrainian media, similarly, condemned the Pope’s racism, attracting numerous comments from Ukrainians full of dismay and indignation.   


It is clear that the Pope’s comments about the “cruellest” troops in Ukraine were ignorant at best and racist at worst, and were met with dismay and indignation by everyone who wants peace in Ukraine. But why would the leader of the Catholic Church believe that smearing those “not of the Russian tradition” might help? The Washington Post wondered if this was the pontiff’s way to blame non-Christians in Russia, since the Chechens are predominantly Muslim, and the Buryats’ tradition religion is Tibetan Buddhism.  

The paper argued that the Holy See is trying to mediate in the conflict and is careful not to antagonise the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been a strong supporter of Putin’s war in Ukraine. It follows that by blaming non-Christians for the worst atrocities, the Vatican would leave the door open for further negotiations with the Russian Orthodox Church. However, if this was indeed the Pope’s intention, it completely backfired.  


Russia’s propaganda media used the pontiff’s attack on non-Christians in Russia to condemn all “Western values”. In the words of MK, a popular Russian daily: “The Pope is a perfect example of how the West is losing its traditions and its Christian culture under the pressure from ultra-liberal minorities”. The paper conflates the Pope’s support for gay rights with his prejudice against ethnic minorities in Russia. According the paper, both illustrate the decline of the Western civilisation as a whole.  

Another popular paper, Gazeta.ru, quoted the governor of Buryatia who listed a number of atrocities committed by the West, from crusades to the genocide against indigenous peoples of America, and the more recent bombings of Belgrade and Libya. 

Examples of atrocities committed by the West are regularly used by Kremlin propaganda to drive home its nationalist message that Russia is under a centuries-old threat from the West and is now fighting an existential war. In this way, the Pope’s racist comments have played straight into the hand of Moscow’s warmongering propaganda.  

All this has prompted Vera Kuklina, a Buryat peace activist, to post a heartfelt appeal to the Catholic Church:    

“It breaks my heart to see people in Ukraine being killed and how one of the world leaders decided to blame our small nations for the war crimes of Putin and his friends. St. John Paul II was one of the major figures who ended the Cold War, so I believe that Catholic Church can play an important role in ending this war. But it cannot be done by accusing those who have already suffered enough. Our people are disproportionally being affected by repressions, thousands had to flee the country and others were drafted against their will, but there are many who actively oppose the war.” 

Peace activists all over Russia are looking to all world leaders and organisations to intervene and stop Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Blaming Russian troops for brutality based on their ethnic or religious origin will not help bring about peace.  


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