30 September 2023
Fact checkMisleading

Misleading: Pope Francis was not holding a Ukrainian flag with Nazi symbol

The flag shows the symbol of the uprising in Kyiv in 2014, known as the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine.

Earlier this month a Twitter user posted two photos side by side. One showed Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church at Vatican City, holding a flag featuring the Ukrainian colors of blue and yellow and a cross-like icon with intersecting pointed weapons behind it. The other image featured a similar-looking symbol that bore a swastika.

The account with 24,500 followers commented, “Well done Pope Francis!! What a humiliation and shame for the church.” The tweet has more than 1,035 retweets and over 30,009 likes at the time of writing.

According to his Twitter profile, the account owner Angelo Giuliano is a political and financial analyst based in Hong Kong. Giuliano has been interviewed by state-controlled news outlets in China such as China Daily, Global Times and CGTN.

However, this post is misleading. The symbol featured on the flag Pope Francis is holding is a Cossack Cross used by the military forces in Ukraine. It has nothing to do with the Nazis.

The Ukrainian Armed Forces awards badges bearing the Order of the Commander of the Cossack Cross to celebrated defenders of the country, according to an information agency for the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.

The badge has a Cossack Cross with a crossed sword and mace – a symbol identical to the one Pope Francis displays in the photo.

The flag also contains text surrounding the cross. The text in Ukrainian “Козацька сотня майдану” can be translated to ​​”Cossack Hundred of the Maidan,” according to Anatoly Oleksiyenko, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Hong Kong who specializes in post-Soviet studies, and Adrianna Stech, his research assistant.

Cossack refers to a group of people who were living in Ukraine in the 17 to 18th century, while Maidan refers to the Euromaidan movement, the independence uprising movement that took place in 2014 at “Maidan Nezalezhnosti” or the central square in Kyiv, known as the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine.

Oleksiyenko said “sotnia” (hundred) refers to a military unit or a company of 100-150 people.  He said those protesters killed by Viktor Yanukovych, then leader of Ukraine who was removed from office in the Maidan Revolution, are often referred to as the “Heavenly Hundred.”

Oleksiyenko thinks the flag was probably sent to Pope Francis from Bucha where many Ukrainian civilians have been reportedly massacred by Russian soldiers.

“Supposedly, it [the flag] belonged to a Ukrainian armed territorial defense unit (these are usually made up of civilian volunteers, who may also have served in self-defense units formed during the 2014 protests that were also referred to as “sotnias”) that had been defending the city,” he wrote in an email to Annie Lab.

Caption: A screenshot from the book, “Ukraine Military Awards,” written by Jaroslaw Semotiuk published in 2004.
A comparison between the Free Cossack symbol from the book (left) and the one on the Ukrainian Flag Pope Francis holds (right).

The Pope’s image used in the tweets appears to be a scene from the General Audience on April 6, a weekly event in which he meets pilgrims who come to listen to his blessing at the Vatican.

ABC News reported Pope Francis condemned Russian troops on that day for the reported massacre of civilians in Bucha. He gave a special prayer and asked for peace and forgiveness from God for the war in Ukraine, according to Vatican News.

It is not the first time that neo-Nazis in Ukraine are mentioned in widely circulated content on social media. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that the invasion of Ukraine was meant to “de-Nazify” the country.

Ever since the start of the war in Ukraine, videos and images of Nazi symbols in Ukraine have been posted and shared on different social media platforms.

For example, a symbol on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s shirt during an address to the U.S. Congress has been falsely identified as a symbol of Nazi Germany and quickly fact-checked by media organizations around the world.