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ROME – Civil and religious leaders around the world observed the one year anniversary of the outbreak of war in Ukraine Friday, calling for an end to hostilities and gathering in prayer to honor victims of the conflict and to beg God for peace.
In a tweet marking the Feb. 24 anniversary, Pope Francis said that, “One year ago, the absurd war against Ukraine began.”
“Let us remain close to the tormented Ukrainian people, who continue to suffer, and let us ask ourselves: Has everything possible been done to stop the war? Peace built on rubble will never be a true victory,” he said.
The war in Ukraine broke out Feb. 24, 2022, after Russian troops invaded various portions of Ukrainian territory, seeking to overthrow Kyiv.
While many believed the capital would fall in a matter of days or weeks, world leaders rallied together in support of Ukraine, and a year later, Kyiv remains firmly in Ukrainian control, and Russian troops have now largely focused their efforts on taking Ukraine’s eastern regions.
According to United Nations estimates, so far around 8,000 civilians have died amid the violence, many of whom are children, while an additional 13,300 have been injured. In terms of soldiers, there have been an estimated 300,000 casualties on both sides.
In addition, eight million Ukrainians have fled the country and are living abroad as refugees, while eight million more are internally displaced.
Attempts at ceasefire negotiations so far have failed, with Russia set on a list of demands – including the annexation of Ukrainian territory – to which Ukraine refuses to agree.
In addition to public pleas for peace on social media, the war’s anniversary was also marked by a series of prayer vigils in Ukraine, Italy, and beyond.
A 12-hour prayer vigil was organized in Kyiv by Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, and took place at the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, lasting from noon to midnight.
Shevchuk insisted that the war did not begin a year ago, but in fact began in 2014 with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its invasion of the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.
“On February 24 last year, the history of the capital, our golden-domed Kyiv, which our princes built as a new Jerusalem, a city where God dwells with his people, was added to this rosary marked with the blood of the sons and daughters of Ukraine,” Shevchuk said.
He stressed the importance of implementing the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, “especially on this day of tragic anniversaries.”
To fast, he said, means standing in solidarity with all those who currently have nothing to eat or drink, and with those who remain in the occupied territories and in Russian captivity.
Shevchuk resisted negotiation propositions that would have Ukraine hand over occupied territories to Russia, saying, “When someone today trades Ukrainian territories, we say: No! We cannot trade the bodies and souls of our Ukrainian brothers in the occupied territories!”
He thanked all those who have stood with Ukraine over the past year, saying, “We feel that the Lord grants us victory, a victory for which we knock on heaven’s door in prayer. The Lord gives us the victory that we receive by fasting.”
“The Lord gives us victory, which we can obtain by performing works of mercy, which we bring closer daily with our work and prayer. Today, Russia has already lost, though we have not yet won,” he said.
During an evening prayer vigil at the basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome, Italian Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the vicar of Rome, spoke to a group of Ukrainian refugees who were present, and heard the testimonies of three women who fled Ukraine and are in Italy as refugees and who are assisted by various social and charitable organizations.
“We are not here to celebrate, we are here to cry out to the Lord! We are all here because we have in our hearts a strong, intense, and profound desire: that of peace!” De Donatis said, saying, “Stop the arrogance, the domination, the violence against the defenseless, stop the weapons!”
Orthodox leaders also weighed in, with the Orthodox Public Affairs Committee (OPAC) issuing a statement calling for “an immediate ceasefire” and the prompt withdrawal of all Russian military and paramilitary troops from Ukrainian territory.
The committee also criticized Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill’s defense of the invasion, decrying “the unchristian support of the war” that Kirill has had from the beginning.
Members of the committee called on hierarchy, clergy, and faithful within the Russian Orthodox Church to bravely “resist Kirill’s slavish submission to the Putin regime.”
“The complicity of the Moscow Patriarchate’s leadership in the war crimes being perpetrated in Ukraine remains beyond comprehension. It is clear is that these so called ‘men of God’ are under the control of Putin and his henchmen,” the OPAC said.
They also called for the unification of the two branches of Ukrainian orthodoxy, one of which recently gained independence while the other has traditionally been loyal to Moscow, but has retracted that loyalty as a result of the Ukraine war and Kirill’s support of it.
Metropolitan Epiphany of Kyiv and All Ukraine, who serves as primate of the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, in a message Friday recalled “with pain and suffering all the innocent victims of the atrocities of Russian terrorism, the acts of genocide and other war crimes that the servants of the Kremlin tyrant committed and continue to commit in our land.”
Like Shevchuk, he insisted that the war in Ukraine began nine years ago with the seizure of Crimea, calling it, “A war in which the tyranny of the Kremlin has mobilized all its resources: troops and diplomacy, economy and culture, media and religious communities.”
Epiphany echoed the condemnation of Kirill and his supporters’ stance on the war, saying, “it is absolutely shameful and has no moral justification, as instead of raising their voices against the absurd war against Ukraine, they began to bless aggression and justify criminals.”
“In our deepest conviction, the ideology of the ‘Russian world’ must be condemned in the same way as Nazism, Bolshevism, and other odious theories that justify evil,” he said, adding, “They have blood on their hands that cannot be washed away.”
The European bishops also marked the anniversary, calling for an end to hostilities in a statement Friday and assuring Ukraine that throughout the Lenten season, “Holy Mass will be celebrated in each country throughout Europe in turn to invoke peace in Ukraine and pray for those who have died as a result of the war.”
Signed by Archbishop Gintaras Grušas of Lithuania, president of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (CCCE), the statement assured the bishops’ closeness to the suffering, saying they have joined “a network of solidarity to support the Ukrainian people,” as many Christians have welcomed Ukrainian refugees into their homes, and many bishops and church delegations have traveled to Ukraine to show support.
“While international law is being trampled underfoot in a terrible war scenario, all believers in Christ, and people of goodwill, are called to strive to be builders of peace,” the bishops said, and lamented that previous calls for peace and genuine negotiations so far have failed.
“While we look with bitterness at the present wounds, we urge everyone to continue the solidarity effort that is already underway to support the Ukrainian people,” the bishops said, and pledged their efforts to building “a Europe finally reconciled in a just peace.”
The bishops of the CCEE, currently in St. Gallen in Switzerland for a meeting on the pastoral care for Ukrainian refugees in Europe, asked that “those with authority over nations make a concrete commitment to ending the conflict, reaching a ceasefire and starting peace negotiations.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen