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The Pope tries using Good Friday to bring together Ukrainians and Russians

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Millions of Christians around the world are nearing the end of Lent, a time that's supposed to be focused on reconciliation. Russia invaded Ukraine shortly before Lent, and Pope Francis wanted to use the season to encourage the sides to reconcile. That hasn't happened. NPR's Julian Hayda has more from Ukraine.

JULIAN HAYDA, BYLINE: Pilgrims from around the world have been flocking to Rome for over 2,000 years, especially to mark the most solemn day on the Catholic calendar - Good Friday. Since the 1960s, Roman popes have led a procession around the Colosseum to honor Jesus' torture and crucifixion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in Italian).

HAYDA: Pilgrims carry a cross, symbolizing the weight of human suffering. The Vatican often uses this ritual to promote a social message - for instance, in recent years, bringing awareness to human trafficking or the plight of refugees. But this year's Good Friday ritual drew protest from Ukrainians after the Vatican announced Monday that they planned to have Ukrainian and Russian families carry the cross together.

ANATOLY BABINSKY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

HAYDA: "The Vatican doesn't seem to see the difference between victims and perpetrators," says Anatoly Babinsky, a church historian. He fears that Russia could exploit such ambivalence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

HAYDA: Pope Francis has offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine and last week even kissed a flag from the Ukrainian town of Bucha. Hundreds of civilians have been found dead there after Russia's retreat. Top Vatican officials have spent weeks in Ukraine visiting some areas close to the Russian front. They donated two ambulances to damaged hospitals, even.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

VISVALDAS KULBOKAS: (Speaking Ukrainian).

HAYDA: "None of this is political," said the Vatican's ambassador to Ukraine on YouTube.

But John Allen, the editor-in-chief of Crux Now, a Catholic news site, disagrees. He wrote this week that the pope needs to protect the interests of growing Catholic minorities in places like India, the Central African Republic or China, countries that have either supported or failed to condemn Russia's war. It seems like the Good Friday protests did have some effect, though. Instead of families carrying the cross, two Rome-based nurses from Russian and Ukrainian backgrounds did so.

But Babinsky says neither of the women represent all Russians or Ukrainians. He cites a new poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that shows more than 4 in 5 Russians support the actions of their country's military in Ukraine.

Julian Hayda, NPR News, Lviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julian Hayda