The head of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church has demanded an end to Russia’s overnight missile strikes, as the Vatican outlined plans to send a “peace mission” to the warring sides and the Word Council of Churches reported a willingness for dialogue by Ukrainian and Russian church leaders.
“Unfortunately, this war is not only continuing – we are witnessing a new stage in its escalation, with some 18 million people needing urgent humanitarian assistance in Ukraine today”, Major Archbishop Svetoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych said in a national message on Monday from a synod meeting of bishops at Zarwanica.
“I ask all people of goodwill across the world, heads of churches and religious organisations to make a global appeal to the Russian president, to Russian war criminals, to stop the overnight war crimes against Ukraine immediately.
“You voice will save dozens, hundreds of civilian lives.”
The archbishop said Russia’s missile and rocket attacks had increased dramatically against Kyiv, Kharkiv and other cities, worsening food and water shortages across his country and leaving children as the “most defenceless group” in society.
He added that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s 10-point peace plan represented “elements necessary for the Ukrainian people’s survival” and also expressed different aspects of a humanitarian crisis requiring “an immediate response”.
At the weekend, the Vatican’s press office confirmed the Pope had asked Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, to lead a mission to “help ease tensions” and “initiate paths of peace” in Ukraine, as fierce fighting continued around Bakhmut and other points of the 900-mile front.
The news followed President Zelensky’s 13 May Rome visit, during which he again invited Francis to visit Kyiv but said he had also requested the pontiff’s “condemnation of crimes in Ukraine” and rejected suggestions of mediation or negotiation in an interview with Italy’s RAI broadcaster.
In a commentary on Monday, Poland’s Church-run Catholic Information Agency said Cardinal Zuppi’s “extremely difficult” mission appeared to have been conceived “against all hope” and could be confined to negotiating the release of POWs and return of abducted Ukrainian children.
Meanwhile, a Ukrainian bishop also voiced doubts about current peace prospects and said he doubted Vatican initiatives would prove effective.
“Of course, there are always grounds for hope, but while the Vatican shows goodwill, it is also naive,” Bishop Stanislav Szyrokoradiuk of Odessa-Simferopol told The Tablet.
“Russia is currently bombarding residential areas to inflict as many deaths and injuries as possible. Faced with such a diabolical force, what sort of peace are we talking about and how can the Pope regulate the situation?”
The exchanges took place as leaders from Britain and the G7 group of industrialised democracies, meeting in Hiroshima, announced further sanctions against Moscow, and as the US government unveiled a new military aid package, its second in May, and agreed to begin training Ukrainian pilots for its advanced F16 fighter jets.
In a statement after visiting Moscow, the WCC’s general secretary, Revd Jerry Pillay, said he was grateful that Russia’s Orthodox Patriarch Kirill had agreed to explore a “dialogue on the war and its consequences”, after gaining similar “expressions of willingness” by leaders of Ukraine’s rival Orthodox churches during a previous visit to Kyiv.
However, he added that “perspectives on the conflict, its causes and the path towards a just peace” remained “highly polarised”, and said Patriarch Kirill had cautioned that he should first “consult internally” within the Russian Orthodox Church.
In a declaration last week, Ukraine’s Council of Churches and Religious Organisations warned that Moscow should be held to account for its brutal actions and backed calls for Russian leaders to face trial for war crimes.
“Acknowledging the scale of grief inflicted by Russia on our believers and the entire Ukrainian people, aware of the threat posed by Russian imperialism to the peoples of Europe ... we unconditionally support the creation of an international tribunal to prosecute the Russian authorities,” said the council, which includes Ukraine’s independent and Moscow-linked Orthodox Churches, as well as Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims.
“Constant artillery, missile and bomb strikes on civilian homes, schools, kindergartens, churches, mosques and synagogues; the destruction of cities and villages, and deliberate destruction of Ukraine’s historical, cultural and spiritual heritage; the murder of women and children, executions, torture, kidnappings, the mockery of international law and nuclear blackmail – all this cannot and should not go unpunished”.
Speaking last week at a Council of Europe summit in Rejkjavik, however, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said he nevertheless believed the time had come for a “lasting and just peace in Ukraine” and said the Vatican was determined to “play its role” in peacemaking initiatives.
However, a distinguished lay French theologian, has sharply criticised Pope Francis for seeking a compromise to the war in Ukraine.
Anne-Marie Pelletier, a winner of the Ratzinger Prize and author of Good Friday meditations for the Vatican, said the Holy See had struggled so much to find a clear line that the pontiff’s words recalled the 1938 Munich pact.
“The virtues of dialogue are falsely invoked, when one of the parties only knows lies,” said Pelletier, the first woman to win the Ratzinger Prize in 2014. “One does not negotiate with the devil.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to annihilate Ukraine, she wrote in the Paris daily Le Monde.
“May Pope Francis serve the cause of peace by first serving the cause of truth,” she said.