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ROME – According to the United Nations, 1.5 million Ukrainians fled to neighboring countries during the first 10 days of Russia’s invasion, which began Feb. 24. It is the fastest growing refugee crisis anywhere in the world since World War II. The number is expected to grow exponentially in coming weeks.
Speaking from Hungary, from where he hopes to reach Ukraine, Cardinal Michael Czerny, who is the interim head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development, told Crux that the preparation for his trip began “soon after the crisis broke.”
Czerny was appointed a papal envoy to Ukraine during the crisis by Pope Francis.
“The most important part was that the migrants and refugees section [of the dicastery] facilitated a meeting of the major Catholic actors who were going to be involved in responding,” said the Czechoslovakian-born Canadian. The cardinal headed the section until late last year, when he was appointed interim head of the entire dicastery.
Out of that meeting, he said, came the suggestion of making some concrete gestures that would serve as “an expression of the Holy Father’s solidarity. Following a discussion with the Secretariat of State, the current trip was agreed.”
Pope Francis announced the decision to send two cardinals to Ukraine on Sunday, after leading thousands in St. Peter’s Square in the weekly Angelus prayer. Czerny headed to Hungary on Tuesday, where he met with refugees in Budapest.
The cardinal left Rome in the morning onboard a low-cost flight to carry out the mission on behalf of the pope and “all the Christian people,” as Francis said on Sunday. His visit is meant to bring closeness and support to those who have been forced to leave their land and their homes because of the cruel violence of war following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the papal almoner, left Rome for Poland on Monday, and by Tuesday he was in Lviv, where he met with Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Ukrainian Church.
According to the local government, every day for the past two weeks, Budapest’s train station has seen 2,000-2,500 new refugees. Most of them are welcomed by Caritas Hungary, the Order of Malta and other charitable organizations related in some way to the Catholic Church or other religions. The government has offered those fleeing war sustenance for at least three months, but the refugees do not want to stay for too long in Hungary: Poland, Italy and above all Germany are the most sought-after destinations, for job opportunities or because relatives live there.
“What is quite striking is that the great difficulties that people were having, especially in terms of insecurity, were all within Ukraine, because of the violence, the bombings, the crowded roads and the lack of fuel,” Czerny said. “All the difficulties associated with fleeing for your life. Then the long waits at the border, sometimes for days, because of the time it takes each person, each family who is trying to leave.”
Yet once people reach Hungary, “I have the impression that the response has been well organized, and that there is a good cooperation between the church and its organizations, and the state, meaning the facilities or means that the state is offering,” he said. “I have the impression that once people get here, they are able to manage quite well, with a lot of services provided for free, and readily available for the people for as long as they wish to stay, but in large proportion, they then move on to other countries.”
Czerny also said that the solidarity that has thus far been expressed by Ukraine’s neighboring countries is “certainly a welcome experience,” but he doesn’t find it to be all that surprising.
“Thanks to our work in the migrants and refugees’ section throughout the world, I would say that this is rather typical, and therefore not surprising,” he said. “If people recognize the need, the suffering, the anguish, and the vulnerability of people in flight, of people on the move, they respond generously and with real compassion.”
He believes that in terms of welcoming attitudes, what the world is witnessing today from Poland, Hungary and other countries that neighbor with Ukraine is similar to the refugee experience in Africa, Asia or Latin America.
Czerny makes the connection between this welcoming attitude and Pope Francis’s Fratelli Tutti encyclical, published in 2020: “People respond with fraternity, in a Samaritan way, when they have the opportunity, and really the grace, to encounter their brothers and sisters in need.”
Asked if his actual arrival in Ukraine was guaranteed by Tuesday afternoon, or if it was still up in the air, he said that it is, in fact, up in the air: “I don’t know [if we will make it]. But you will hear about it if it happens.”
In a statement released by the dicastery he co-heads with Italian Sister Alessandra Smerilli, the Vatican said that during the trip he will continue to point out the “sad similarities” between the sufferings of Ukrainians and long-standing conflicts that no longer attract the world’s attention.
In addition, he will raise his concern that African and Asian residents in Ukraine, who also suffer fear and displacement, be allowed to seek refuge without discrimination, as well as address the “worrying” reports of increased activities related to human trafficking and smuggling of migrants across borders.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma