ROME – As the world reels from news of the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Friday, and as the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches, Ukraine’s top prelate has condemned the ongoing violence, calling it a “genocide.”

Speaking during via video connection during a press conference titled “2014-2024: Ten Years of War in Ukraine,” Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk said Russia’s goal in the conflict is to “destroy the existence of an entire nation.”

“We can testify that what is happening now in Ukraine is genocide. The state authorities [of Russia] decided to eliminate the existence of an entire nation. In Ukraine, people are killed because they are Ukrainians,” he said.

The press conference that Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, spoke at was organized by papal charity Aid to the Church in Need as the second anniversary of Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine approaches.

It also came ahead of an announcement from Russian officials Friday that Alexei Navalny, a prominent political opposition candidate to Russian President Vladimir Putin, had died in a Siberian prison.

Navalny, 47, was serving a 19-year sentence for alleged extremism and criticism of Putin after his condemnations of the Russian president garnered global attention. Navalny’s profile rose further after he voluntarily returned to Russia after an apparent assassination attempt via poisoning by Kremlin officials in 2020.

He ran for president in 2018, and despite being detained in 2021 after returning to Russia, he continued to speak out against Putin, often criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Putin, who annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and who initially styled the 2022 invasion as a “special military operation,” has been president of Russia for over two decades, and is currently seeking a fifth term.

Though church leaders in Rome and in Russia have not initially weighed in on Navalny’s death, which apparently occurred when he collapsed after taking a walk, Navalny’s passing has been condemned by political leaders and heads of state around the world, including US President Joe Biden, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of European Parliament Ursua von der Leyen and other EU officials, Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Italian Prime Minister Girogia Meloni.

Shevchuk in his speech at the press conference stressed the importance of identifying Russian war crimes amid the war in Ukraine and thanked organizations conducting on the ground research into the facts of alleged incidents.

“It is very important to condemn these war crimes. Because if we don’t, they will continue and affect other peoples and other parts of the world,” he said, saying, “Recognizing such crimes as genocide means stopping them.”

Ukrainians need the world to see the pain and suffering they are enduring, he said, and invited those who doubt the claims of the scale of violence and destruction to come and see the carnage with their own eyes.

“Come and see. Visit those people who are injured or the families of the dead. Come and see, come and touch human wounds,” he said.

Shevchuk also spoke about the role of the pope’s personal peace envoy to Ukraine, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, and efforts to return Ukrainian children forcibly deported to Russia, which has been a primary focus on Zuppi’s mission.

“Children in Ukraine are the most vulnerable part” of Ukrainian society, Shevchuk said, noting that more than 500 children are officially confirmed as having died in the war, while some 1,200 others have been injured, with many requiring prosthetics for missing limbs.

Shevchuk thanked Zuppi for his efforts, saying, “If we combine our efforts at different levels – diplomatic, humanitarian, even with the help of journalists from different countries – more and more Ukrainian children will be saved and will be able to return from Russia to their homes.”

In terms of the pastoral situation on the ground, Shevchuk said the Church and its pastors are looking for new ways to minister to their people, especially those who have lost loved ones, calling this “the pastoral care of grief.”

“The future of Ukraine, the future of the Church depends on how we can respond to this huge need of people in Ukraine to overcome the trauma of the war,” he said, saying the war has had a devastating impact on families.

There are many people who have died, who are prisoners, or who are missing, he said, noting that in 2023, Ukraine registered over 180,000 marriages, but also roughly 120,000 divorces, a number he said marks “the largest number of divorces in the history of independent Ukraine.”

Not only does this present a major pastoral challenge for the Church and its clergy, but the ongoing humanitarian crisis is a source of ongoing concern, with around seven million Ukrainians currently experiencing a food crisis, with incoming aid packages decreasing as the war drags on.

Parishes are playing a frontline role in assisting displaced people who have no shelter after fleeing their homes to go to safer cities and regions.

Shevchuk said clergy and monks are also working to provide psychological, physical and spiritual support to the population, with teachers, volunteers and other specialists asking to receive training in how to assist in what will be a long-term recovery effort.

He said rehabilitation centers are being opened throughout Ukraine and pointed to the “unbroken” facility in Lviv, where Ukrainian youth are fitted with prosthetics and undergo rehab.

Meanwhile, he said parishes are shuttering in Russian-occupied cities, as churches are closed, and pastors are either ousted or imprisoned.

“It is becoming more and more difficult for our people to practice their faith,” he said.

Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, the Vatican’s nuncio to Ukraine, also spoke at the press conference, saying the ongoing war is “not just a theory,” but is impacting real people and families.

Amid increased pressure on the Church and other challenges such as the humanitarian situation and the lack of access for many children to education, the Church in Ukraine “acts as a single body,” Kulbokas said, saying the center of the Church’s efforts is protecting and promoting the human person.

Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen