ROME – On Sunday Pope Francis gave a shout-out to Ukraine and Russia for their recent exchange of 70 prisoners, voicing not only happiness for those set free but hope that the gesture will help bring an end to the ongoing conflict between the two nations.

“Last week a long-awaited exchange of prisoners between the Russian Federation and Ukraine took place,” the pope said during his Sept. 15 Angelus address, adding that he is happy for those who have been freed, “and who have been able to embrace their loved ones again.”

“I continue to pray for a rapid end to the conflict and for lasting peace in eastern Ukraine,” he said.

On Sept. 7, Ukraine and Russia exchanged some 70 prisoners in a bid to ease tensions between the two nations sparked by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Conflict immediately broke out between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian separatists. To date, roughly 13,000 people have died and 17 million have been displaced as a result of the lingering war.

As part of last Saturday’s exchange, some 35 Ukrainian prisoners were released, including 24 sailors captured by the Russian navy while attempting to sail through the Kerch Strait near Crimea last November, an incident which caused international backlash. Ukraine also set free 35 Russian prisoners they had detained.

During a Sept. 11 press briefing at the close of the Sept. 2-10 annual synod of bishops for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, this year held in Rome, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk said his church lended a hand in negotiating the deal.

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“We collaborated at all levels to free the prisoners,” he said, but lamented that an exchange was necessary, saying, “human life cannot be used as a bargaining chip.”

Speaking of the 24 sailors who were imprisoned, Shevchuk noted that they had been declared innocent, promoting the United States to increase sanctions against Russia over their continued detainment.

“They should have simply been released, not exchanged,” he said, but voiced his joy that they and several other prisoners were finally released.

“We have suffered with all those who are prisoners of war or hostages of this persecution, which unfortunately is lived daily in the current political context of Russia,” Shevchuk told journalists.

He voiced his hope that more, similar, arrangements can be made in the future, noting that there are still more than 100 people waiting to be freed.

“We all want peace, but a just peace. Not an imitation of peace,” he said, insisting that various levels of politics often suffer from the “great sickness of imitating processes” which in reality don’t exist.

As negotiations continue, Shevchuk cautioned that the value of human life must be placed above political interests, saying that to use a person, prisoner or not, as a pawn in a political game “is not human, it is not Christian.”

“Human life cannot be a bargaining chip to exchange,” he said, adding that if economic interests such as avoiding sanctions, and diplomatic “games” become more important than human life, “then the world, democracy, Europe, are in grave danger.”

“We are very happy that these people were freed,” he said, adding that the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine “will do everything in our power” to help facilitate the release of those who remain in detention.

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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