Vatican City
Reuters

Pope Francis on Wednesday asked people around the world to remember Ukrainians in underground shelters seeking protection from bombardments and thanked Poland for taking in the bulk of refugees from the war.

Francis spoke at his weekly general audience on Ash Wednesday, which he has declared a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine.

Vatican Pope with members of Italian armed forces

Italian Army members pose for a photograph with Pope Francis at the weekly general audience at the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, on 2nd March. PICTURE: Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane.

After addressing Poles, the Pope went off script to say that the Polish translator on the stage with him, Father Marek Viktor Gongalo, is Ukrainian.

"His parents are now in underground shelters to protect themselves from the bombs in a place near Kyiv," the Pope said.

"By accompanying him, we accompany all the people who are suffering from the bombings, including his elderly parents and so many other elderly who are in underground shelters defending themselves. Let us remember these people in our hearts."

Kyiv residents have been sheltering in metro stations and other underground sites at night, there are long lines for fuel, and some products are running out in shops. 

More than half a million Ukrainians have fled the fighting since the invasion, which Russia calls a special military operation, began, most crossing into Poland and Romania. The European Commission proposed granting temporary residence to Ukrainian refugees.

"You were the first to support Ukraine, opening your borders, your hearts and the doors of your homes to Ukrainians fleeing war," the Pope said, addressing Poles through the translator.

"You are generously offering them everything they need to live in dignity, despite the drama of the moment. I am deeply grateful to you and I bless you from my heart!" he said.



Francis has called for humanitarian corridors to help refugees leave and said those who make war should not be deluded into thinking that God is on their side.

The Kremlin says its campaign is not designed to occupy territory but to destroy its neighbour's military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists. 

The Vatican has called for an immediate stop to the attack and said it is ready to "facilitate dialogue" between Russia and Ukraine. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine has asked the Pope to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin about allowing humanitarian corridors to assist civilians affected by the war, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Wednesday.

"I hope the conversation will take place," she said on live Ukrainian TV.

- With NATALIA ZINETS