Pope Francis tells Ukrainian Catholic leaders to persevere in hope amid Donbas conflict

Pope Francis meets with Ukrainian Greek Catholic leaders at the Vatican July 5 2019 Credit Vatican Media Pope Francis meets with Ukrainian Greek Catholic leaders at the Vatican July 5, 2019. | Vatican Media.

One day following his private audience with Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis met Friday with leaders of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, encouraging them to persevere in hope and prayer amid the conflict in Donbas.

"Ukraine has been living for a long time a difficult and delicate situation, for over five years wounded by a conflict that many call 'hybrid', composed as it is by war actions where those responsible are camouflaged," Pope Francis said July 5 in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace.

The pope said that "the weakest and the smallest pay the highest price" in the conflict, which he said is "aggravated by propaganda falsifications and various types of manipulation, including the attempt to involve the religious aspect."

Pope Francis told Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, the members of the Permanent Synod, and the Metropolitans in the meeting to have prayer and the spiritual life as their first priority, not worldly concerns.

"You are a Church that knows how to speak in spiritual and not worldly terms … On the night of the conflict that you are going through, as in Gethsemane, the Lord asks his people to 'watch and pray,' not to defend oneself, let alone to attack," Pope Francis said.

"The main role of the Church, faced with the complex situations caused by conflicts, is to offer a witness of Christian hope. Not a hope of the world, which is based on things that pass, come and go, and often divide, but the hope that never disappoints," he said.

More than 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region since 2014, and nearly two million people were internally displaced by the conflict.

"Prayer and self-giving to the end are the answers the Lord expects from His own. Only these answers are Christian, they alone save from the worldly spiral of violence," Francis said.

Pope Francis prayed that God would "comfort the souls of those who have lost their loved ones because of the war, of those who bear their wounds in body and spirit, of those who had to leave the home and work and face the risk of looking for a more humane future elsewhere, far away."

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine began in 2014 following Russia's annexation of Crimea and the Maidan Revolution in which a Europe and NATO leaning faction gained power in Kiev. Russian separatists in Donbas reacted and began fighting against the Ukrainian military.

Pope Francis did not mention Russia or his meeting the previous day with Russian President Vladimir Putin in his published remarks to the Ukrainian Catholic leaders.

A statement from the Holy See Press Office July 4 said that Pope Francis discussed Ukraine with Putin during their 55-minute meeting, but did not give any further details.

"The encounter with Jesus, the spiritual life, the prayer that vibrates in the beauty of your liturgy transmit that beautiful force of peace, which soothes wounds and instills courage, but not aggression," Pope Francis said.

Christian minorities, including Catholics and Evangelicals, living in the Russian-occupied separatist parastates in Donbas were subject to kidnappings, torture, robberies, and the expropriation of church buildings at the initial phase of the occupation, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

The Lugansk People's Republic parastate in eastern Ukraine announced in 2018 that it would require registration of all religious groups in its territory, which according to USCIRF experts, "could be a prelude to the official exclusion of religious minorities."

"Christian hope, nourished by the light of Christ, makes the resurrection and life shine even in the darkest nights of the world," Pope Francis said.

"I carry you in my heart and I pray for you, dear Ukrainian Brothers," the pope said. "I beg the Lord to accompany the actions of all political leaders to seek … the common good, peace."

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