Following mixed interpretations of Pope Francis' words on the crisis in Ukraine, the director of the Holy See press office said on Tuesday that the Holy See's overarching interest is in peace and negotiation.

Pope Francis "has always wished to address all the interested parties, trusting in the sincere efforts of each one to implement agreements reached by common consent and invoking the principle of international law, to which the Holy See has referred several times since the beginning of the crisis," Fr. Federico Lombardi said Feb. 10.

Following his General Audience on Feb. 4, the Pope had said that "once again my thoughts go to the beloved people of Ukraine. Unfortunately the situation is deteriorating and the polarity between the parties is growing worse. Let us pray first and foremost for the victims, among whom are so many civilians, and for their families, and let us ask the Lord that this horrible fratricidal violence cease as quickly as possible."

More than 5,400 people have died in the conflict in eastern Ukraine which has lasted since April 2014, when pro-Russian separatists began fighting the Ukrainian government. The rebels are supported by both Russian arms and troops, according to both Ukraine and Western nations.

Because of the presence of Russian troops in the east of their country, many Ukrainians took issue with Pope Francis' description of the violence as "fratricidal" – they consider the crisis a product of foreign aggression on the part of Moscow.

And when the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow praised Pope Francis' words, the discomfort of Ukrainians – including Catholics – was heightened.

Fr. Lombardi clarified that "in the presence of an escalation of the conflict that has claimed many innocent victims, the Holy Father Francis has renewed his appeal for peace on several occasions. By these interventions, while inviting the faithful to pray for those who have been killed and injured as a result of the hostilities, the Pope also underlined the urgency of resuming negotiations as the only possible way out of the logic of mounting accusations and reactions."

He added that Pope Francis is joyfully awaiting the ad limina visit of the Ukrainian bishops, scheduled to take place Feb. 16-21.

"This will constitute a further occasion to meet those brother bishops, to be directly informed on the situation of that dear country, to console the Church and those who suffer, and to evaluate together paths for reconciliation and peace," Fr. Lombardi commented.

On the final day of the Ukrainian ad limina, Pope Francis will meet in private with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.

As Merkel is strongly committed to peace negotiations in Ukraine, the issue is likely to dominate, and the Holy See would reaffirm its support for diplomatic action.

"I would say that it is natural that the Pope and Angela Merkel will talk about the Ukrainian situation. The principle that the Holy See will not interfere with the government agenda, and will not prompt solutions to crisis, will remain firm. But it is likely that both the Pope and the Secretary of State will express their concern and will encourage any effort to bring peace in the Ukraine," Fr. Lombardi told CNA Feb. 10.

On the other hand, Fr. Lombardi rejected the idea that a declaration from the Secretariat of State on the Ukrainian issue should be expected.