07 June 2023, The Tablet

Italian cardinal concludes peace mission to Ukraine

Archbishop Svetoslav Shevchuk said that “fire, tears and blood” had become “everyday life” in Kyiv.

Italian cardinal concludes peace mission to Ukraine

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi meets President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on 6 June.
Associated Press/Alamy

The Vatican's top diplomat has defended a controversial “peace mission” by an Italian cardinal sent by Pope Francis to Ukraine, which ended on Tuesday amid a significant new escalation of the war.

“The war in Ukraine will end at the negotiating table – this is why the Holy See's efforts are aimed at trying to get to the table as soon as possible,” Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican's secretary for relations with states, told La Stampa.

“The Holy Father has been continually evaluating ideas and proposals that could help ease tensions and start paths to a just peace ... So we hope and pray for such a delicate mission, knowing speed and timing are also very important.”

The archbishop made the comments ahead of the arrival in Kyiv on Monday of Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, on a two-day visit aimed, according to the Vatican communique, at “listening in depth to the Ukrainian authorities on possible ways to achieve a just peace and to support humanitarian gestures to help ease tensions”.

Cardinal Zuppi met civil and religious leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the parliamentary commissioner for human rights, Dmytro Lubinets, who discussed the treatment of children civilians in Russian-occupied territories.

A statement from the Holy See press office said: “The results of these talks, like those with religious representatives as well as the direct experience of the atrocious suffering of the Ukrainian people as a result of the ongoing war, will be brought to the Holy Father's attention.”

Archbishop Gallagher said the Holy See recognised the “difficulties and sufferings” of the Ukrainian people, but also believed “the idea of a peace process” should be kept alive, and would encourage “any nation and any actor” to do “everything possible” to end the war.

However, the head of Ukraine's Greek Catholic Church said that “fire, tears and blood” had become “everyday life” in Kyiv, adding that United Nations agencies had agreed the suffering of children would pose “one of the most serious humanitarian problems” for Ukraine in the future.

Russia has destroyed over 440 schools and educational institutions in Ukraine since the invasion last February.

“Russia has already abducted over 19,000 children, and those are just the cases we know of – we know the Russians also deliberately change their names and birth dates so their parents cannot find them,” said Archbishop Svetoslav Shevchuk in a national message on Monday.

“I appeal once again to the conscience of the international community to protect the lives of Ukrainian children and do everything so the Russian criminal does not kill any more of them.”

Preaching in St Peter’s on 25 May, five days after his mission to “initiate paths of peace” was announced by the Vatican, Cardinal Zuppi said Ukrainians had been “engulfed in a fratricidal machine of war”, adding that it was the Church’s duty to accompany those “feeling hurt, aggressive and bitter”.

However, prior to the visit Catholic bishops in Ukraine said that they had received no notification of Cardinal Zuppi's itinerary, while the Vatican's own Kyiv nunciature said it also had “no information” about the mission “beyond what was reported in the media”. 

News of Cardinal Zuppi's arrival in Kyiv coincided with claims by Moscow that its forces had driven back an assault by eight Ukrainian battalions in the eastern Donetsk region, killing 250 soldiers and destroying 16 tanks, although Kyiv government sources denied the latest fighting formed part of a long-anticipated counter-offensive.

Speaking at the end of May, the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, welcomed a brief statement by the Russian foreign ministry, noting the Holy See’s “sincere desire to promote the peace process”, telling Vatican Radio that Cardinal Zuppi would be trying to “create a climate helping the pursuit of a peaceful solution”.

However, Russia’s Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, told the Tass news agency on Monday that President Vladimir Putin currently had no plans for a meeting with Cardinal Zuppi.

Meanwhile, in a Sunday sermon at Moscow's Christ the Saviour cathedral, Patriarch Kirill warned all “faithful sons of the fatherland” to avoid disunity, and to remember Russia would be weakened by “any internecine strife or conflict”.

Kirill last week awarded the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, the First Degree of the Order of Glory and Honour to mark his sixtieth birthday and to recognise his “outstanding contribution to the strengthening of traditional moral values in the life of European society”.

COMECE, the association of Catholic bishops conferences in the European Union, and the Protestant and Orthodox leaders of the Conference of European Churches (CEC), have expressed their support for continued EU humanitarian, political and financial solidarity with Ukraine.

The Church leaders told officials from Sweden, the new president of the EU Council, that they remained deeply concerned by the war there.

Meeting Sweden’s minister for social affairs and public health, Jakob Forssmed, in Stockholm on 30 May, they also emphasised the need to counter the political use of religion and the spread of false information and polarisation “in our societies and the world”.

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