By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) -Pope Francis came under criticism on Monday for telling Russian youths to remember that they are the heirs of past tsars such as Peter the Great, who President Vladimir Putin has held up as an example to justify the invasion of Ukraine.
Ukraine said the comments, which Francis made on Friday in a live video address to Catholic youths gathered in St. Petersburg, were "deeply regrettable".
Francis read his prepared speech in Spanish but at the end, shifted into impromptu Italian and said: "Don't forget (your) heredity. You are heirs of the great Russia - the great Russia of the saints, of kings, the great Russia of Peter the Great, of Catherine II, the great Russian empire, cultured, so much culture, so much humanity. You are the heirs of the great mother Russia. Go forward."
The Vatican released the text of the address on Saturday but did not include the last, improvised paragraph. A video of the pope making the comments was posted by religious websites.
"It is precisely with such imperialist propaganda, the 'spiritual ties' and the 'need' to save 'great Mother Russia' that the Kremlin justifies the killing of thousands of Ukrainians and the destruction of Ukrainian cities and villages," Oleg Nikolenko, spokesperson for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, said on Facebook.
"It is deeply regrettable that such notions of being a great power, which contribute, in essence, to Russia's chronic aggressiveness, are voiced by the pope, either knowingly or unknowingly," Nikolenko said.
Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of Ukraine's Eastern Rite Catholic Church, said in a statement that the pope's words had caused "great pain and worry" and feared they could "inspire the neo-colonial ambitions of the aggressor country". He asked the Vatican for an explanation.
An editorial on Italy's Il Sismografo website, which specialises in Catholic affairs, called the pope's words "odd" at a delicate moment in history.
It noted that Catherine, commonly known as Catherine the Great and who ruled from 1729 to 1796, annexed Crimea in 1783. It also noted that Catherine protected Jesuits in Russian-controlled lands after Pope Clement XIV suppressed the order worldwide in 1773. Pope Francis is a Jesuit.
TRIBUTE TO TSAR
Last year Putin paid tribute to Tsar Peter the Great, the other Russian leader mentioned by the pope, drawing a parallel between what he portrayed as their twin historic quests to win back Russian lands.
Putin has repeatedly sought to justify Russia's actions in Ukraine, where his forces have devastated cities, killed thousands and put millions of people to flight, by propounding a view of history that asserts Ukraine has no real national identity or tradition of statehood.
"This is truly revolting," former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said on X, formerly known as Twitter, about the pope's remarks.
Nexta, a site that reports on Belarus from Poland, said on X: "By the way, the Catholics of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus raised uprisings three times against this 'enlightened empire'".
Francis has called Russia's actions in Ukraine brutal, cruel and ferocious and has said that the invasion violated a country's right to self-determination. He has spoken of a "martyred Ukraine" at nearly every public appearance since the invasion in February 2022.
But he also has made a series of apparent gaffes when speaking extemporaneously.
Last year, he upset Kyiv by referring to Russian ultra-nationalist Darya Dugina, who was killed by a car bomb near Moscow, as an innocent victim of war.
The comment prompted Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to summon the Vatican's ambassador in Kyiv to protest, saying the pope's words were "unfair" and had "broken Ukraine's heart".
(Additional reporting by Ron Popeski; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Alex Richardson)