31 January 2023, The Tablet

Pope affirms support for Ukraine to religious leaders

Francis met a delegation in Rome from the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations.

Pope affirms support for Ukraine to religious leaders

Pope Francis meets members of the delegation from the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations.
Vatican Media/CNA

The Pope has assured Ukrainian religious leaders of his support in the current war, as fresh missile strikes hit the provincial cities of Kherson and Kharkiv.

The government in Kyiv has urged faster weapons supplies from the West to head off a new Russian spring offensive.

“You participate in the life of the country, endeavouring to respond to social challenges with public interventions and various activities,” Francis told a delegation from the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations, grouping Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant leaders, as well as Jews and Muslims.

“I am with you in defending the rights of the faithful of every religious community, especially those who suffer abuse and persecution, and in your commitment to assisting prisoners and those detained for political reasons.”

The pontiff spoke to the delegation on 25 January during its three-day Rome visit, which included talks with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secrtetary of State, as well as a visit to Rome's Bambino Gesu paediatric hospital, where up to 2000 Ukrainian children have received treatment. 

He said he had been stirred by the war’s “images of immense tragedy”, regularly receiving envoys from President Volodymyr Zelensky and speaking to Ukrainian representatives.

The Pope had also welcomed ecumenical and inter-faith peace initiatives undertaken since Russia's invasion in February last year. 

“Your action, carried out with tenacity and courage, prepares effectively for tomorrow – a tomorrow of peace, in which economic and political interests that engender war will finally give way to the common good of peoples,” the Pope said.

“It is not so much about Jewish Ukraine, Christian Ukraine, Orthodox Ukraine, Catholic Ukraine, Islamic Ukraine – no, it is about Ukraine, mother Ukraine, all together.”

The talks took place while Western governments debated whether to follow the delivery of talks to Ukraine with the supply of fighter jets, as President Zelensky's government pledged to continue its latest fight against corruption. 

Speaking after the Rome visit, Ukraine's Greek Catholic archbishop, Svetoslav Shevchuk, said the council, which includes both of the country's rival Orthodox Churches, had renewed an invitation to the Pope to visit Kyiv, but he added that Church leaders had also faced “great difficulties” when talking to Vatican officials about the supply of arms to their country. 

“We are forced to defend ourselves – if anyone knows how to stop Russian armoured vehicles without weapons, we will be grateful to hear it,” Archbishop Shevchuk told journalists.

“For many years, I have taught Catholic morality – that the Church no longer speaks of a just war. But when I saw pits full of bodies, the corpses of women and young people, I reconsidered these Catholic Church teachings.” 

In a national message on Monday, ahead of a Kyiv meeting with families of Ukrainian prisoners, Archbishop Shevchuk said 20,000 Ukrainians were currently held in “concentration camps” across Russian-occupied territory, while “tears and laments” were heard for the forced mass deportation of Ukrainians to Russia.

He added that the number of child deaths and injuries from the deliberate targeting of residential areas was likely to be much higher than the 1,376 officially registered so far.

Following the visit to Rome, the head of Ukraine's independent Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), travelled to Istanbul, to meet the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

Patriarch Bartholomew told the delegation that he admired Ukrainian courage and was praying for the country's victory.

“We condemn this war and Russian aggression against Ukraine,” he said. “It is a diabolical war, that was spawned by untruth.”

The Pope is expected to declare 24 February, the anniversary of Russia's invasion, a day of prayer and fasting for Catholics worldwide.

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