By Inés San Martín
ROME (Crux) — Pope Francis voiced concern over a recent Russian troop buildup near the border with Ukraine and called for efforts to ease tensions in the 7-year conflict.
“I observe with great apprehension the increase of military activities,” Pope Francis said on April 18 in remarks to the public gathered in St. Peter’s Square.
“I strongly hope that an increase of tensions is avoided, and, on the contrary, gestures are made capable of promoting reciprocal trust and favoring the reconciliation and the peace which are so necessary and so desired,″ he added.
An estimated 14,000 Ukrainians have died during the war, which began when Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014. Tensions between Moscow and Kyiv have been rising in recent months, amid a build-up of Russian troops along the border.
The war has centered around the status of the Ukrainian regions of Crimea and Donbas. The conflict, since its very beginning, is in “violation of international law,” said Greek Catholic Ukrainian Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski of London. “In 1990 Russia signed an agreement to respect the territorial rights of Ukraine when Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in 1991.”
“Ukrainians have brewed over the past 25-30 years — not without bumps, not without challenges — the right to self-determination of a democratic system,” he told Crux via FaceTime on Sunday. “They had to pay a very high price for the transition, and they continue to feel their way along, sometimes with great success, sometimes not so much, but they are trying, and this needs to be recognized.”
Bishop Nowakowski says he feels the pope’s comments about what’s happening in eastern Ukraine are further evidence of the pontiff’s deep care for the nation.
“He has manifested that many, many times, including when the first humanitarian crisis was brought to his attention by our patriarch Sviatoslav [Shevchuk] and the permanent synod, of which I was a part of,” the bishop said, noting that Pope Francis “responded by organizing a special fund to assist the people who were suffering because of the occupation – the war that was started by Russia – called Pope for Ukraine.”
“I think that, once again, he’s proven to me — not that he has to — to be a wonderful father, and somebody who cares not only about the Ukrainian Catholics or Ukrainian Greek Catholics, but the people of Ukraine,” said Bishop Nowakowski. “Being the bishop for Ukrainian Greek Catholics in Great Britain, where we have hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who’ve come here in recent years, it’s important for us to hear these messages of solidarity.”
There are many reasons for Pope Francis’ particular attention towards Ukraine, he said, including the fact that when then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Ukrainian Church, was the bishop of Buenos Aires for the Greek Ukrainians. The two are reportedly close friends.
Beyond the “personal” level, there’s also the fact that Ukraine is the only country in Europe that has seen continuous war for the last seven years.
“I think people often forget that this is a war that has been waged in Europe, in our era,” said Bishop Nowakowski. “Of course, we are not the only country that has been invaded, but the Vatican is in Europe, and so is Ukraine.”
A third possible reason behind this is the fact that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is the second largest Catholic Church in the world, and the majority of the faithful live in Ukraine.
Since the invasion in February 2014, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has supplied chaplains to the frontlines who are supporting both the professional Ukrainian armed forces and also a large number of volunteer fighters.
Attempting to explain the conflict for those not familiar with it, Bishop Nowakowski notes that when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the two largest countries were the Russian Federation and Ukraine. The latter “has rich agricultural lands, mineral resources, and of course, the Black Sea ports.”
In addition, it borders many countries, including Belarus, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Slovakia, making it central to the continent. Though counting 45 million people – almost half Germany’s 84 million – territorially, Ukraine is by far the largest country in non-Russian Europe – almost twice as large as Germany. Russia is much larger, but most of its territory is in Asia.
“I don’t’ want to make any assumptions and I cannot read the mind of the leader of the Russian Federation, Mr. Putin, but I think that probably for him, in his mind, Russia cannot be complete without Ukraine,” Bishop Nowakowski said.