The wives of Ukrainian soldiers who are still holding out in the Mariupol steelworks told Pope Francis on Wednesday that they feared their husbands would be tortured and killed if captured by Russian forces.
They begged the leader of the Catholic Church to intervene to save their husbands and the other soldiers fighting alongside them.
But the chances of such a rescue mission from the Vatican appear, for the moment at least, to be slim.
The two young women met the Pope during his weekly general audience in St Peter’s Square, saying the soldiers bunkered down in the huge steel plant were in desperate straits, with the injured suffering from gangrene.
Kateryna Prokopenko and Yuliia Fedusiuk said food and medicines were running out and even water was in short supply.
The Ukrainian soldiers would be willing to be evacuated to a third country if the Russians spared their lives, they said.
“They will not go to Russian captivity because they will be tortured and killed,” said Ms Fedusiuk, 29, whose husband Arseniy Fedusiuk is one of the Ukrainian soldiers holding out in the Azovstal complex.
She said the situation was so bad that her husband recently asked her to find research online about how to survive without water.
“We asked the Pope to help them, to be a third party in this war and to let them go through the (humanitarian) corridor,” she said. “He told us that he prays for us and that he is doing everything he can.”
A weeping Ms Prokopenko, 27, whose husband, Denys Prokopenko, is the commander of the Azov Regiment, told Francis: “You are our last hope. We hope you can save their lives. Please don’t let them die. Russian captivity is not an option for them.”
After the five-minute meeting, she told journalists: “We asked him to come to Ukraine, to talk to Putin, to tell him ‘Let them go’. He just said he would pray for us. We hope that this meeting will just give us the chance to save their lives.”
While Francis said he would do everything he could, the chances of an intercession by the Vatican appear to be remote for now.
The Pope said earlier this month that he had requested a meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow to try to negotiate an end to the fighting but had not had a reply from the Kremlin. He said he would not visit Ukraine until he had met Putin in Moscow.
While Francis has condemned the war in general, he has been reluctant to pin the blame on the Kremlin.
In an interview with an Italian paper this month, he suggested that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine had been provoked by “Nato barking at Russia’s gate”.
He told Corriere della Sera: “I have no way of telling whether his rage has been provoked but I suspect it was maybe facilitated by the West’s attitude.”
Asked whether he agreed with the West supplying huge quantities of arms to Ukraine, he said: “I can’t answer that question, I live too far away, I don’t know if it is the right thing to supply the Ukrainian fighters.”
The Pope’s ambivalence towards the war is mirrored by similar attitudes in Italy.
Two parties in the governing coalition – the hard-Right League and the populist Five Star Movement – have criticised the funneling of weapons to Ukraine and are deeply uneasy with the hawkish stance of the US and Britain.
A survey released this week found that 41 per cent of Italians are neither pro-Ukraine nor pro-Russia and 36 per cent worry that Italy could be dragged into the war.
Despite the atrocities committed by Russian forces, from raping women to bombing civilian targets, some Italian politicians continue to espouse pro-Moscow views.
The Vatican has defended the Pope’s reluctance to directly criticise the Putin regime, saying the Holy See always maintains neutrality in wartime.
That stance derives “not out of cowardice or an excess of diplomatic prudence, but in order not to close the door, in order to always leave open a crack to the possibility of stopping the evil and saving human lives,” said a front page editorial in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily newspaper.
But Pope Francis has been criticised by some Catholics for not explicitly condemning Russia’s invasion.
“It is time for Francis to speak the truth about the murderous assault on Ukraine,” the influential National Catholic Reporter wrote last month. “It is time to call things as they are. This is Putin’s war and it is evil.”
Francis has criticised the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, for his unwavering support of the invasion.
He said that by offering such unquestioning moral and spiritual legitimacy, the patriarch was in danger of becoming Putin’s “altar boy”.