Pope Francis meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a private audience at the Vatican, February 8, 2020…
Pope Francis meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a private audience at the Vatican, February 8, 2020.

Ukraine's president has asked Pope Francis for help in securing the release of prisoners of war held by Russia and by Russia-backed separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine. 

Volodymyr Zelenskiy made the request after a meeting Saturday with the pontiff at the Vatican. 

"[The pope] does everything possible to achieve peace and harmony throughout the world," Zelenskiy said in a tweet after their meeting. 

"I asked for help with the release of Ukrainians captured in Donbas, Crimea and Russia," he said. 

Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March 2014. A month later, fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine, and the conflict has since killed more than 13,000 people and displaced more than 1 million.

 

Since being elected in May 2019, Zelenskiy has overseen two major swaps of prisoners with Russia and the separatist fighters it backs in eastern Ukraine. 

Pope Francis, the 83-year-old head of the Roman Catholic Church, has several times voiced hope for an end to the conflict. 

Francis offered a prayer ahead of the key summit involving Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris in December 2019. The pope also called for peace in eastern Ukraine in his Christmas message. 

The overwhelming majority of observant Ukrainians are Orthodox Christian; only a small percentage consider themselves Roman Catholic. 

However, Greek or Eastern Rite Catholics are the second-largest Christian denomination in the country and recognize the pope as their spiritual leader. 

Medal for Zelenskiy

During the photo session of the meeting, which was open to reporters, Francis gave Zelenskiy a medal of St. Martin of Tours and said he hoped the saint "will protect your people from war." 

Zelenskiy arrived in Italy on Friday, when he met with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. 

Talks in Rome were reported to focus on Vitaliy Markiv, a Ukrainian national guardsman sentenced in 2019 by an Italian court to 24 years in prison for his role in the deaths of an Italian photojournalist and his translator during fighting near the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk in 2014.