Pope Francis has sparked outrage by claiming that non-Slavic minorities are the “cruellest” among the invading Russian troops in Ukraine in a recent interview.
Anti-war minority activists have reacted with horror to his remarks in a Christian magazine, and accused the Pontiff of unfairly scapegoating Russian minority groups for the violence in Ukraine.
“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 cruellest are perhaps those who are of Russia but are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryati and so on,” the Pope said in his interview published on Monday in America, a Jesuit-published Christian magazine.
The Ukrainian government has accused Russia of carrying out at least 34,000 possible war crimes, including murder, rape, torture, and indiscriminate bombing.
Activists say ethnic minorities such as Buryats, Chechens and other non-Slavic groups have been disproportionately targeted in the mobilisation efforts while being typecast as Vladimir Putin’s most bloodthirsty fighters.
During President Putin’s “partial mobilisation” in the autumn, videos surfaced showing people, many in deprived regions of the country with high non-Slavic populations, protesting against mobilisation, and arguing with enlistment officials who said they should join to fight for the future of the country.
One of the videos from Dagestan showed a man telling an official, “We don’t even have a present. What kind of future are you talking about?”
Alexandra Garmazhapova, a journalist and president of the Free Buryatia Foundation, an activist group, described Pope Francis’s remark as racist and groundless. “This is no doubt a racist comment because singling out one ethnicity as ‘the cruellest’ is a sign of racism,” she said.
The Free Buryatia Foundation leads the anti-war movement primarily among the Buryats, an indigenous minority from Siberia.
“If the Pope is really against the war in Ukraine he could use his influence to persuade European and American politicians to offer real help to Ukraine. At the moment it seems the world is sending Ukraine mostly thoughts and prayers,’’ Garmazhapova said.
“The Pope should do a more thorough fact-checking,” Abubakar Yangulbaev, a Chechen lawyer and human rights activist, told VICE World News. He said that as the Russian army is dominated by ethnic Russians, most of the war crimes are committed by them due to their sheer numbers. According to Yangulbaev’s estimations, no more than 3,100 Chechens participated in the invasion, which makes up less than 0.1 percent of the Russian army.
“The Pope shouldn’t act like a ‘Russian Pope’ favouring one ethnicity and blaming minorities for the atrocities,” he said.
Mariya Vyushkova, co-founder and the research director of Free Buryatia Foundation, said that Pope’s comments could be seen as promoting hatred, racial prejudice, and also religious intolerance, as Chechens are Muslim and Buryats are Buddhist and Shamanist.
“I am an ethnic Buryat and I work for a Catholic university – I’m a research scientist with the University of Notre Dame in the US. I believe that Catholic values are about love, peace, truth, and human dignity. That’s why I am so shocked and saddened by Pope Francis’s statement about Chechens and Buryats.”
Vyushkova added that the data from Ukrainian, Russian, and international sources show that the myth of Buryats being “the cruellest” during the war is unfounded as there is no clear evidence of ethnic Buryats being implicated in war crimes more often than other Russian troops. She also stressed that the Ukrainian authorities have concluded that mass murders in Bucha were committed by the 76th Guards Air Assault Division from Pskov (who are almost exclusively ethnic Russians) and not Buryats as various media and commentators initially claimed.
Both Vyushkova and Garmazhapova said that they find it strange that Pope blames Chechens and Buryats for the war in Ukraine but avoids blaming Vladimir Putin, and appears to promote the “both sides” narrative regarding Russia and Ukraine.
Vyushkova expressed hope that the Pope’s words have been misrepresented and that he did not mean to insult Chechens, Buryats, or any other ethnic group. “We, Buryat anti-war activists, hope that the Pope will issue a response on this issue,” she said.
The Vatican press office did not respond to a request for comment from VICE World News.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been going on for more than nine months, with the official civilian death toll at nearly 6,900, according to the United Nations. Fierce fighting continues in the east of the country and intense Russian bombing of energy infrastructure has put Ukraine on the brink of humanitarian disaster as winter sets in.