Vatican City, Feb 4, 2015 / 07:07 am
As the number of deaths in Ukraine continue to rise amid escalating violence, Pope Francis has called the war "a scandal," and urged the international community to "make every effort" for peace.
"My thoughts turn again to the beloved Ukrainian people. Unfortunately the situation is getting worse (as is) the grave opposition between parties," the Pope told those present in the Vatican's Paul VI Hall for his Feb. 4 general audience.
He offered prayers for the victims of the increasing violence, "of which there are many civilians," as well as their families, and prayed that "this horrible fratricidal violence will cease as soon as possible."
Casualties have continued to increase as violence has escalated. Up to 16 new civilian lives were claimed and more were injured following shelling in Donetsk on Tuesday, BBC News reports.
U.N. figures show the death toll in Ukraine now exceeds 5,350 people, plus more than 12,000 others who have been wounded since fighting broke out last year. An exact number, however, is not confirmed.
Last February Ukraine's former president was ousted following months of violent protest, and a new government appointed. In March, Ukraine's eastern peninsula of Crimea was annexed by Russia and pro-Russian separatist rebels have since taken control of eastern portions of Ukraine, around Donetsk and Luhansk.
Persecution of both Roman and Greek Catholics has also been an increasing concern with the influx of Russian soldiers and pro-Russian separatists into the country.
In September the apostolic nuncio to Ukraine, Archbishop Thomas Gullikson, voiced concern that Russia's expansion into the country has caused major instability and threatens a return to former political persecution.
He told CNA, "The danger of repression of the Greek-Catholic Church exists in whatever part of Ukraine Russia might establish its predominance or continue through acts of terrorism to push forward with its aggression."
"There is no reason for excluding the possibility of another wholesale repression of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church as came about in 1946 with the complicity of the Orthodox brethren and the blessing of Moscow," the nuncio said.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was severely persecuted in the country while it was a part of the Soviet Union.
So far many Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic clergy have been forced to leave Crimea due to the conflict. Both Roman and Greek Catholics are facing difficulties in properly registering ownership of church property and in ensuring legal residency for their clergy.
In his audience address, Pope Francis renewed his "heartfelt appeal" for all parties involved "to make every effort, also on an international level, for the resumption of dialogue, which is the only possible way to restore peace and harmony in that tormented land."
The pontiff revealed that whenever he hears the words "victory" or "defeat" in regards to the current conflict, he feels a "great pain, a great sadness" in his heart.
With no "right words" to describe the situation, the pontiff said the only word that is always right "is peace."
"I think of you, Ukrainian brothers and sisters, but (also) think that this is a war between Christians! All of you have the same baptism! You are fighting among Christians. Think about this. This is a scandal," he said.
According to the BBC, roughly 1.2 million have fled their homes since last April. Pro-Russian separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko said rebels were aiming to boost their forces to 100,000 men.
With the Ukrainian government's announced mobilization effort, which includes plans to bring the numbers in its armed forces to 200,000 by later this year, U.S. officials are also reported to be considering the option of sending defensive weapons and other aid to Ukraine's armed forces.
Pope Francis closed his audience by encouraging all to pray together for an end to the Ukrainian conflict, "because prayer is our protest before God in times of war."