ROME – Prelates attending a major conference on the Mediterranean region taking place in Florence, Italy, raised their voices in support of the Ukrainian people after Russia began an invasion of its neighbor.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk was supposed to attend the gathering, as Ukraine is at the crossroads between the Mediterranean and the East. However, he chose to skip the summit to “stay close to his people.” According to a statement published by his office, as the summit was underway on Thursday, he was in a bunker under the Kyiv Cathedral of the Resurrection “with many people,” as explosions were reported in the Ukrainian capital.
The Russian invasion reshaped the remarks of many of those attending the meeting, with many bishops highlighting the role of religions in building peace.
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem said, “the religious element is fundamental due to the closeness between politics and faith,” referring to the close link between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.
“Bearing in mind the issue of citizenship that compels us, it is very indicative, because religion cannot be instrumental to political visions, a problem that we also have in the Middle East and North Africa,” said the Italian prelate, who has long served in the Holy Land.
Defining the role and relationship between religion, identity, nation, and citizenship are very current issues, Pizzaballa said, acknowledging that this relationship is being “experienced, unfortunately, in a non-positive way in the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine, where the religious element is instrumental.”
He also called on the importance of interreligious dialogue – the ecumenical efforts between Catholics and Russian Orthodox being key in this conflict – so that relationships are built, not as instruments of politics but to help politics have a broader vision.
“It is necessary to avoid in every way that religion feeds the reasons for war,” said Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, archbishop of Florence and host for the summit, which was organized by the Italian Bishops Conference.
“And this happens only when religion does not turn into fundamentalism and does not become an instrument of populism and nationalism,” he said. “Any claim of annexation by any political power must be rejected.”
He also urged the faithful to pray for peace, because peace is “not something that men build, it is a gift they receive from God. We are not capable of making peace, we are capable of making war. If we are welcoming, we receive from God the gift of peace.”
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg insisted on the importance of dialogue between politicians and religious, because “God is a father for all, not only of certain nations.”
Similar appeals were issued by different European bishops’ conferences throughout the day.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma