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ROME – In just a few days’ time, Bishop Francesco Savino, a leading figure in the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI), will travel to the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa to bring humanitarian aid and to push for an end to the war.
Savino, who oversees the Italian diocese of Cassano all’Jonio and is vice president of CEI, will participate in a June 26-29 “Caravan of Peace” to Odessa as a sign of closeness and solidarity to those suffering as a result of the ongoing war, which has been raging for four months. Two Caritas workers will join him.
The trip is being organized by the #Stopthewarnow organization, a conglomerate of 175 different Italian associations, movements, and entities involved in nonviolent and humanitarian projects in Ukraine.
Around 100 people traveling in 25 vehicles will participate in this peace caravan, which marks the second of its kind. A similar caravan visited Lviv in April, bringing some 32 tons of humanitarian aid.
Participants in that event held meetings with local associations and institutions, and organized peace marches throughout the streets of Lviv calling for an end to the war.
According to their website, #Stopthewarnow has so far helped more than 300 refugees enter Italy after fleeing Ukraine, in addition to the aid they have provided to citizens on the ground.
The decision to travel to the southern Black Sea port city, the website says, was made specifically to request that the port of Odessa be reopened, allowing grain to be exported, “because no one has the right to let anyone die of hunger.”
Odessa’s seaport, the largest in Ukraine and one of the largest in the Black Sea Basin, has been closed amid the threat of mines and shelling, causing a major food crisis.
Ukraine, often referred to as “the breadbasket of the world,” is one of the world’s leading grain exporters. It usually ships around 90 percent of the wheat, barley, and other grains that its farmers harvest. Several countries and nearly 400 million people are dependent on those exports.
Together, Russia and Ukraine make up roughly a third of the world’s wheat and barley production, and 70 percent of its sunflower oil. They are also prominent suppliers of corn, meaning the war has caused food prices to skyrocket, as some 20 million tons of grain from Ukraine has been blocked from reaching the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia.
According to UN estimates, around 181 million people in 41 countries could face a food crisis or even famine due to the block on Ukraine’s grain exports.
Pope Francis, in a general audience earlier this month, condemned the blockade of Ukraine’s grain exports, citing the impact it is having on poor and developing nations.
“I make a heartfelt appeal that every effort be made to resolve this issue and to guarantee the universal human right to food,” he said. “Please do not use wheat, a staple food, as a weapon of war!”
Another motive for traveling to Odessa, according to #Stopthewarnow, is to bring humanitarian aid to the civilian population in need in the area, and to ask for a halt in bomb and missile attacks, “because no one has the right to make war, to shoot civilians, and to decide who lives and who dies.”
So far, more than 10,000 civilians have either been killed or injured in the war, according to the UN, while an additional 7.7 million people have fled and are living abroad as refugees. An estimated 8 million people in Ukraine are internally displaced.
On May 1, #Stopthewarnow launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #ALPOPOLORUSSO (#TotheRussianPeople) asking Russian citizens to pressure the government for an immediate ceasefire and the establishment of peace by publishing an open letter on social media accounts.
Citizens, institutions, and associations were asked to display the letter on the side of municipalities, office buildings, and the windows of houses to raise awareness about the request.
Several activities and meetings have already been planned for Savino’s trip to Odessa next week, including meetings with representatives of various institutions and associations involved in relief efforts, as well as refugees from Mykolaiv, Kherson, and other areas impacted by the war.
On June 29, on his return to Rome, Savino is scheduled to stop in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, where he will meet with the Catholic archbishop, Anton Coşa, and representatives from the local Caritas branch.
From the beginning of the war, Caritas has been on the frontlines of welcoming Ukrainian refugees into Italy. So far, roughly 136,917 Ukrainian refugees have entered Italy, many of whom are being assisted by local diocesan Caritas offices in the cities where they are relocated.
A second caravan for peace will take place July 14-18, with the goal of bringing an additional 100 people.
Speaking of his upcoming trip, Savino in a press release about his visit, said that “Within the paradoxical contradictions of a war which, according to United Nations sources, has recorded 10,000 civilian victims, we cannot but take the side of all victims, bearing witness to active non-violence, which is the opposite of indifference.”
“Against violence, oppression, and war, we feel the need to be an interposition of peace in places of conflict,” he said. “Without any instrumentalization, we want to testify that peace is possible.”
“From war, from every war, we all come out defeated,” Savino said, adding, “War is never a solution.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen