Pope Francis has joined the international chorus of concern over tensions stemming from a Russian troop buildup near its border with Ukraine, urging dialogue to resolve strains and avoid armed conflict.
The Roman Catholic pontiff told an audience of thousands at St. Peter's Square in the Vatican on December 12 that "weapons are not the path to take."
He said he was praying for "dear Ukraine, for all its churches and religious communities and for all of its people, so that tensions there are resolved through a serious international dialogue and not with weapons."
Ukraine, a post-Soviet country of around 44 million mostly Orthodox Christians, has been fighting a war against Russia-backed separatists in its east for seven years.
Kyiv and Western governments say a recent buildup of tens of thousands of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine could signal President Vladimir Putin's plans to launch a large-scale invasion.
"May this Christmas bring peace to Ukraine," the pope said.
About 10 percent of Ukrainians are Catholic.
NATO, European leaders, and the United States have repeatedly warned of serious consequences if Russia escalates militarily against Ukraine.
Group of Seven (G7) foreign ministers meeting for a second day of talks in Liverpool on December 12 are reportedly preparing a statement cautioning Moscow of "massive consequences and severe cost" if it takes fresh military action against Ukraine.
The Kremlin has meanwhile said it is planning another Russian-U.S. presidential conversation -- and would like an in-person summit -- to discuss Ukraine and what it regards as its "red lines" internationally.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 13,200 people since April 2014 in a conflict that followed soon after Russia's occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.