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ROME – As the war in Ukraine draws near to the one-month mark and the millions of people who have fled are seeking shelter and protection elsewhere in Europe, Italy is currently hosting a generous number of them and is prepared to receive 600 more refugees this week with the help of several NGOs.
In total, more than 3.3 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia first invaded Feb. 24, according to the United Nations, and some 6.5 million people are internally displaced.
With the bulk of refugees fleeing to neighboring countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia, many have had to be relocated as shelters and local charitable organizations are reaching saturation levels and are unable to accommodate the ongoing influx.
Of the 3.3 million who have fled so far, Italy has taken in roughly 55,711, the bulk of whom are women and children, according to the Italian Interior Ministry. Most have arrived in major cities such as Milan, Rome, Naples, and Bologna.
This week, three humanitarian flights carrying around 600 Ukrainian refugees will land in Italy with the collaboration of NGOs Solidaire and Open Arms.
Departing from Warsaw, these flights will land in the airports of Rome, Cagliari, and Palermo. The people they are carrying will be welcomed and hosted by around 40 diocesan Caritas branches throughout the country, including several Italian islands.
Caritas has organized a press conference with Italian Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia and president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference to coincide with the arrival of Tuesday’s flight to Rome. It will also be attended by representatives of Solidaire and Open Arms.
Archbishop Carlo Roberto Maria Redaelli of Gorizia, president of Caritas Italy, and Archbishop Gian Carlo Perego of Ferrara-Comacchio, president of the Migrantes Foundation, will also participate.
Italy has been among the most receptive countries to Ukrainian refugees since the beginning of the war and has made a specific offer to accept children in need of medical treatment and care.
On Saturday afternoon, Pope Francis visited several of these children who are receiving their treatment at the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesu Pediatric Hospital in Rome. There are currently 19 Ukrainian children undergoing treatment at Bambino Gesu. Around 50 have arrived since the beginning of the war.
Some, including a seven-year-old girl with metastatic kidney cancer, are being treated in other places, such as Rome’s Gemelli Hospital, where popes typically receive treatment, and where Pope Francis underwent colon surgery last summer.
Most of the children fled shortly after war broke out and are afflicted by various oncological and neurological conditions. There are also some girls, who arrived recently, receiving treatment for injuries sustained in explosions from a missile or bomb attack.
During his Sunday Angelus address, Francis recalled his visit to the children, noting that one was missing an arm and another is suffering from a head wound sustained by bomb or missile attacks.
He lamented the suffering of “innocent children” and noted that many people, especially those unable to travel, such as the elderly and sick, have been left behind as the bombs continue to fall.
“All of this is inhuman! Indeed, it’s also sacrilegious, because it goes against the sacredness of human life,” he said, and urged those who are leading the charge with their welcome and donations not to let their generosity tire as the war wages on.
“Let us not tire of welcoming generously, as we are doing: not only now, in the emergency, but also in the weeks and months to come, because you know that at the first moment we all do our best to welcome, but then habit cools our hearts a little and we forget,” he said.
In a video message Saturday, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk also issued an appeal for the world not to forget what Ukrainians are going through and to continue to intervene on their behalf.
“I want to appeal to all of you: Do not close your hearts before the pain of Ukraine! For one day the Lord God will tell you: I was wounded in Ukraine, and you turned your face away from me,” he said.
Speaking directly to the international community and organizations involved on the ground, Shevchuk said, “I do not believe that humanity today is powerless in the face of war.”
“All of us together can and must stop the war in Ukraine. Do not be deaf to the sighs, the cries, the tears of thousands of people in Ukraine. Open your heart to them. And let us together do everything to end this horrible war,” he said.
As negotiations continue amid the steady fall of bombs and missiles in Ukraine, many in residential areas, resistance to the war is increasing, not only among citizens and the global community, but also among allies of the Russian Orthodox Church, who have criticized Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill for his backing of the war.
Recently, in Amsterdam four priests and a deacon requested permission to leave the Russian Orthodox Church and to join the Patriarchate of Constantinople over Kirill’s position, and just in the past few days the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Estonia, Metropolitan Yevgeny, has added his voice to the criticism by signing a statement condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Yevgeny led the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate since 2018. With a membership of over 100,000, the church falls, as its name suggests, under jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Moscow.
Signed by leaders of member denominations of the Estonian Council of Churches, the statement says, “We are witnessing terrible developments on the battlefield in Ukraine.”
“Thousands have died, including innocent children, teens, the elderly. Tens of thousands have been wounded. Hundreds of thousands have been left homeless or in distress due to fear, cold, hunger and thirst and ill health. Millions have been forced to leave,” the statement says.
As leaders of Estonia’s largest churches, “we condemn the bombing of humanitarian sites, including churches, and the threat to civilians,” it says, and states the commitment of signatories to provide practical assistance, food, and shelter to refugees, regardless of their religious beliefs.
The Italian Catholic blog Il Sismografo, which publishes Vatican and church-related news in various languages daily, published a comment sent in by a Russian Orthodox priest asking for prayers.
In his note, the priest, whom Sismografo did not identify, said he studied in Rome on a scholarship from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity through the Moscow Patriarchate, and that “many of us, and I, feel like brothers at heart with you Catholics.”
“Now I, and others, ask you to never forget to include in your prayers also we Russians who have nothing to do with the situation of innocent people who are dying,” he said.
He said that he and his fellow clergymen know of many Russian mothers whose young sons were sent out for military service and have since “disappeared.”
“They have lost contact with them. In the barracks they replied, ‘the boys are on a mission.’ It is certain that one died in Ukraine, but the body was never returned,” he said, asking Catholics to “Pray for them too” and appealing for prayers from Pope Francis.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen