Pope asks Italian cardinal to carry out Ukraine peace mission

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) -Pope Francis has asked Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, head of the Italian bishops' conference, to carry out a peace mission to try to help end the war in Ukraine, the Vatican said on Saturday.

Francis first spoke cryptically of his intention to launch a mission when he was returning from a trip to Hungary last month but gave no details.

A Vatican diplomatic source said Zuppi would try to meet separately with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Vatican said in a statement that Zuppi, 67, would carry out the mission, in accordance with the Vatican's Secretariat of State, "to contribute to reducing tensions of the conflict in Ukraine, in the hope, never given up by the Holy Father, that this could start peace processes".

Returning from a trip to Hungary on April 30, Francis made an intriguing but puzzling comment about the Vatican being involved in a mission to try to end the war.

"There is a mission in course now but it is not yet public. When it is public, I will reveal it," he told reporters.

On Saturday the Vatican said the timing and specifics of the mission were still being worked out.

Zuppi hails from the Sant' Egidio Community, a Rome-based peace and justice group which in 1992 brokered a deal that ended the civil war in Mozambique, which had killed about a million people and displaced about four million others.

Pope Francis made him a cardinal in 2019 and he was elected head of the Italian Episcopal Conference last year.

Recently, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said that "now is the moment to take the initiative to create a just peace in Ukraine".

In 2003, the late Pope John Paul II sent high-level representatives to Washington and Baghdad in an unsuccessful attempt to thwart the start of the Iraq War.

Zelenskiy met Pope Francis at the Vatican last Saturday but afterwards appeared to downplay the possibility of a papal mediation.

"With all due respect for His Holiness, we do not need mediators, we need a just peace ... Putin only kills. We don't need a mediation with him," Zelenskiy said on Italian television.

A Vatican statement on the day of Zelenskiy's visit made no mention of any such mission and Zelenskiy said he asked the pope to back Kyiv's own peace plan, which calls for restoring Ukraine's territorial integrity, the withdrawal of Russian troops and cessation of hostilities.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Giles Elgood)