FLORENCE, Italy – Bishops and mayors from the Mediterranean region issued an appeal Saturday for an immediate end to the violence in Ukraine, calling for negotiations to find a peaceful settlement to the conflict.
“A sense of pain has seized bishops and mayors, who jointly hope that violence and the use of weapons could come to a halt, great suffering to the Ukrainian people be avoided and that negotiations to rebuild peace could start immediately,” says the charter.
The statement came in a document called the “Florence Charter,” signed by bishops and mayors from roughly 60 cities and 20 countries of the Mediterranean, taking part in a previously scheduled summit hosted by the Italian bishops’ conference to discuss peace in the region.
Participants acknowledged that the meeting, intended to focus on one part of the world inevitably was impacted by another, referring to the “warfare [that] is taking place against Ukraine.”
Several bishops from the Middle East highlighted their own experience of war as a template for reading events in Ukraine, where Russian forces as of Sunday morning appeared to be intensifying their assault on the capital city of Kiev.
“None of us wants war,” Bishop Yaldo Basel Saleen, auxiliary bishop of Bagdad, Iraq, told Crux on Saturday.
“We have the experience of war in Iraq,” he said. “Even today, peace is not stable in Iraq,” which is why preaching and praying in favor of peace becomes all the more urgent. But “we not only have to pray for peace,” he said, “we also have to intervene and act to build this peace.”
Strikingly, none of the Middle Eastern bishops in attendance voiced sympathy for Russia or President Vladimir Putin, who has sometimes been seen by Christian leaders in the region as a protector against Islamic radicalism.
“War always causes damage,” Saleen said. “We hope that this war ends soon. We pray, yes, but we have to do something for this war to end. In Europe, but also throughout the world, where there are many ongoing conflicts.”
That point was echoed by the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako.
“In Iraq, we had bad experiences with wars. Now the same is happening in Ukraine,” he said. “Political and religious leaders must not remain indifferent.”
Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the Vatican’s top official for the Eastern Catholic churches which are especially present in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, acknowledged that in light of the drama in Ukraine, at one point he thought the weekend summit would be canceled.
However, he said it was necessary to move forward to highlight the “the irrationality of war, and the fact that no problem can be solved through weapons.”
“We are shocked,” he said. “On the other side of Europe, people are being murdered in a shameful, terrible way, which leaves us speechless.”
The weapons, bombs and tanks, he said, “only bring more war, more hatred, more division.”
The gathering in Florence was held in the city’s Palazzo Vecchio, with majestic frescoes adorning each corner of the room holding the event. Though it serves as the town hall, it is known worldwide as the home of a copy of Michelangelo’s David.
On other matters, the bishops and mayors noted the benefits that come from intensifying collaboration in their cities in order to preserve justice, strengthen brotherhood and respect for all citizens and cultural and religious communities present there, also through the valorization of sister cities and dioceses.
Their three-page charter acknowledges the commonalities among the nations of the region, both historically and currently, including challenges due to climate change and migration. It also appeals to governments at a city and state level, as well as religious leaders, to work together in favor of the Mediterranean region, made up of 21 countries, including France, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Lebanon and Libya. Many of the mayors signing the charter are Muslim, something that was highlighted both by the president of the Italian bishops’ conference and the mayor of Florence.
Jamal Itani, the Mayor of Beirut, said the dialogue in Florence “sets the ground for proper cooperation between the cities in the Mediterranean, to try and address problems that are common in many places, and at the same time, unique in others.”
Since the war in Syria began almost a decade ago, Lebanon has welcomed 1.5 million refugees, who represent a third of the population of 4.5 million people. No country in the world has ever had such a proportion of citizens and refugees.
“It has had a major impact on our infrastructure and the life of the Lebanese,” he said. “A meeting like this one sets the ground to better cooperation between cities that perhaps cannot welcome refugees but can help us improve our infrastructure in order to offer a dignified human life to those fleeing war and persecution, while maintaining that of our citizens.”
Crux asked Itani about a possible papal visit, since Pope Francis has long expressed his desire to go. “We have big hopes that he will come soon: he has promised to visit, and it might happen this year.”
Itani said Beirut is already engaged in preparations for a possible visit.
Sandri, the Vatican official, defined the encounter as “very concrete and useful.”
Mayors, he said, follow the day-to-day realities and concerns of citizens, much more so than national governments, while bishops follow the life of the spirit of the people. As such, they are “a fundamental complement to create the foundations of a new civilization in which dialogue can have a concrete growth.”
When it comes to helping migrants and refugees, as well as those in need, he told Crux, there are no “politics,” nor should there be ideologies.
“The policy is to help those in need, so that everyone has access to education and health, to freedom, including religious freedom; and to pursue justice and solidarity, particularly in this situation of the Mediterranean,” he said. In this region, he pointed out, due to the constant migration flow, several mayors are migrants themselves.
Totò Martello, mayor of the Italian island of Lampedusa, visited in 2013 by Pope Francis in a sign of support to a city that has become the door of entry for thousands crossing the Mediterranean Sea looking for peace, told Crux that “not to dialogue implies giving space to weapons, giving space to those who have an interest to dominate and control the world without a democratic debate.”
“Talking implies creating antibodies in people to make them understand that nothing can be solved with weapons,” Martello said. “We arrived here with the awareness that it is important to look for collective presences to talk about such delicate issues as migration and peace.”
Dialogue, he said, is important, because “it is harder to calm things down when the fire has already started.”
In this regard, Florence has been a school of dialogue for religious and civil representatives of different ideas and sensibilities, Sako said.
“In this meeting, and in the Charter, we have reaffirmed that we are one humanity, one human family, with the same dignity, freedom and rights – that same freedom that those who are fleeing from wars, instability and poverty seek.”
The event in Florence included the participation of figures who rose eyebrows, such as six mayors of Libya (invited and announced as participants, but who in the end didn’t show up), and former Italian minister Marco Minniti, President of Med-Or Leonardo, one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers.
(As a footnote, several sources told Crux that the presence of Minniti played a part in Pope Francis choosing to listen to his doctor, who ordered him to rest due to acute knee pain, and not make the trip to Florence.)