(Kyiv, November 17, 2022) In his hands he holds the letter that Pope Francis just sent to him. “Once again the Pope expresses his affectionate closeness” to the “dear Ukrainian people”. And he invites us to be close to “those who are oppressed by fear and by the violence of war.” The Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, shows it as evidence that Francis “always has us in his heart,” he explains. You can see the entrance to the Cathedral of the Resurrection from his apartment on the second floor of the patriarchal residence. From below rises the noise of a construction site. “We are just finishing the work of building a kitchen powered by a diesel generator that will prepare hot meals for those who have no electricity or heat at home.” Then he points to the fifteen- or twenty-storey condominiums along the left bank of the Dnieper, the river that divides the capital in two. “Those are residential areas. The apartments rely on central heating, and everything else runs on electrical current. Not having it means leaving people without meals.” That is why Putin’s ultimate strategy is to bombard the power plants in Ukraine: so as to bring to its knees a nation with winter at the door, as happened again Tuesday[, November 15,] with the rain of missiles on the whole country. Half of Kyiv was left without electricity. “This is a war crime, immoral behavior intentionally causing a new humanitarian crisis,” he notes.
Gambassi: Your people call you the “Patriarch.” You are 52 years old and since 2011 have headed the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. From the beginning of the invasion you have denounced the “atrocities” that Ukraine has endured: carpet bombing, torture, rapes, mass graves.
Major Archbishop Shevchuk: And just recently news that 46 children have disappeared into thin air: a “school camp” was organized in the occupied territories of Zaporizhzhia by the local authorities, but the children were never returned to their families.
Shevchuk spoke to the interviewer in fluent Italian, having studied at the Angelicum in Rome, where he earned a degree in moral theology. He never left the country after it was attacked. During the first weeks of the aggression he turned the Cathedral into a refuge for whoever might need it. He has visited scenes of destruction. He has embraced the sorely tried people. Only in the past few days did he travel to Rome for an audience with Francis.
The Pope is asking to start negotiations. He did so while calling Putin and Zelenskyy by name.
The invitation to the two Presidents goes back to the Angelus message in which he condemned the Russian annexations of four regions of Ukraine, appealing to international law, which guarantees the inviolability of the borders of a sovereign State. Those were truly courageous words. But I think that his whole speech was historic, and I am convinced that it will leave a mark on the history of Central-Eastern Europe and also of the whole Catholic Church as it faces the tragedy of an armed conflict.
The appeal to the two Presidents is striking because of its asymmetry. First, the Pope asks Putin to stop the aggression. This is extraordinary, given that the Russian side is prisoner to their own logic of war. Then, turning to Zelenskyy, he exhorts him to accept “serious peace proposals”—an expression that reveals the profound wisdom of the Pope but was not fully understood.
What are the conditions for a negotiated end to the conflict?
Ever since the military operation in Georgia, Russia has changed the notion of “peace proposal”. For the Kremlin, peace is the pacification of a colony that it has conquered. And it is a peace that must be imposed. In fact, it means a surrender. This model is unacceptable: so then it is not “serious”, to the Pope’s way of thinking. On the other hand, I can assure you that all Ukraine wants peace. For example, our President had made peace with Russia a key point of his electoral campaign. As a Church we educate people to build peace. But above all the world must recognize Ukraine’s right to exist. Something that was denied even recently by Putin. Then it is necessary to assure its own sovereignty: this is the premise of dialogue. Then we arrive at a serious peace proposal, and the country will accept it with great joy. Because we are praying that all this will happen.
Can the Holy See assume the role of mediator?
No doubt. The Pope says so in the letter that he sent me: “I assure you that the Holy See at various levels and in different areas continues its endeavors for an end to the conflict and for the success of all the proposals and campaigns for peace.” Francis tells us that Vatican diplomacy is at our service. Right from the beginning of the war in Donbas and Crimea [in 2014], the Holy See has always declared that it is available for mediation. Our President Zelenskyy has even speculated that Vatican City could be the physical place for the meeting. However there are several prerequisites: first, both parties must agree about the urgency of the mediation; second, those at the negotiating table must listen to the reasons of each party; third, the parties must pledge to comply with the results of the negotiations.
Could pressure from other major powers be useful too?
I am not a politician. But every course that might contribute to saving human lives will be pursued. History reminds us that favoring an aggressor is always counterproductive. Therefore, if there is someone who can bring the Russian authorities back to their senses, he is welcome.
Do you fear an escalation?
The whole war has been one big escalation. And now, after the recent Russian defeats on the battlefield, we are being threatened with nuclear weapons. But among the people, fear has gone beyond the psychological limit that makes it no longer perceptible. This is bad, because the danger has surely not diminished. And meanwhile they repeat: “They have bombed our houses, they strike us with rockets and kamikaze drones; what difference does it make whether we die by a missile or by an atomic bomb?” This means that as Ukrainians we have no choice: we must fight for our survival. But no one is discouraged and the people understand that surrender would make the situation worse.
What reports do you get from the priests who are in the occupied territories?
The occupants’ intention is to depopulate the districts. And we do not know the reason why. Indeed, they declare that they came to protect the population: but then why destroy everything? Then we are witnessing systematic incidents of deportation. In Kherson, ethnic cleansing is under way. Is this the policy of a State that has just annexed new territories? It is the Church’s duty to protect the most vulnerable and, if necessary, to give them a voice. This is why we tell the world what is happening.
Is this Putin’s war, or is the Russian people’s?
Russia is not a democratic country. No one is interested in what the people think. And they are battered by a campaign centered on the supremacy of the Russian nation. Certainly Russian society is subjected to this propaganda, but it has also espoused it, if it is true that 65% of the population supports the war. We are sorry if that is the case. When we see the tears of the Russian mothers who are weeping over the death of their own sons, we have pity and weep with them. And we realize the suffering of the Russian people: I think of the enormous losses in terms of lives; the forced mobilization desired by the government; the hundreds of thousands of persons who are fleeing so as not to go kill others. The Russian government is behaving irresponsibly with regard to its own people also. Therefore I hope that the desire for peace will prevail in Russian public opinion, too. It is obvious that it was a mistake to start the war, but they need to have the courage to acknowledge it. And we, the victims of this folly, are praying also for our enemies: in fact, every Tuesday our whole Church prays to the Lord for the conversion of the aggressors.
The Russian Patriarch Kirill blessed the invasion. Is the war in Ukraine dividing Christians?
It is plain for all to see. Christians are also divided in their evaluation of the conflict. But no one justifies the attack, except the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia. Even the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia has a different position. However the way in which the Orthodox Church in Russia supports the war is reminiscent of the Daesh doctrine. The Islamic State used religion to legitimize the cruelest forms of violence; we notice the same thing in the explicit preaching of the Patriarch of Moscow and of his priests in high-ranking positions. Then ISIS considered the West immoral, and therefore it had to be fought; this is what the Russian Church says, too. ISIS invited young men to sacrifice themselves for the cause, thus assuring them of eternal life; the same formula emerges from Kirill’s words. The Islamic world created antibodies to protect itself from the ideological provocations of ISIS; now we Christians too are obliged to isolate this blatant exploitation of the Gospel. Otherwise not only will we face a fracture of the Christian world, but the credibility of our faith will be diminished.
A very harsh winter is forecast. Is Western sympathy and aid needed?
Ukraine envisages solidarity at various levels. First of all we ask the world to condemn the acts that are targeting the population. Furthermore the Council of Churches in Ukraine, which unites Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, and Muslims, has just launched an appeal to protect our skies. To some it will seem strange that the Churches are asking for anti-missile systems, but we are not demanding equipment so as to kill, but only to save human lives. Then we ask for all sorts of assistance, technical as well, to repair the damage done to our energy infrastructures. Until a short time ago, Ukraine exported its energy to Europe; now we would like Europe to come to our aid in this fundamentally important area.
Will peace require an interior purification also?
As a Church we approved our pastoral plan until the year 2030. And one part of it is dedicated to the wounds that must be healed. We are aware that war not only causes physical wounds but also feeds hatred and revenge. Confucius maintained that if we hate, we are already defeated. However it will take time for peace to be written not only on a document but also on hearts, as the Word of God reminds us. I might add that, once the hostilities have stopped, it will be necessary to identify who the criminals are; otherwise there can be no talk about justice. Hence we must start a journey that has as its destination a truth that is objective, not prefabricated. Many Russians do not know what their own army has done in Ukraine. And we will need also a time to pray together over the graves of all our victims.
Italy has always stood by the Ukrainian people. And the Italian Church, too.
I thank the Italian people, both for the aid that they provide for us, and also for welcoming refugees from the war. A responsibility that falls primarily on the dioceses and the parishes. Furthermore I thank the Italian Bishops’ Conference, which supports our Church every year with financial assistance that becomes vital especially when the bombs are falling. Among other things, our clergy lives below the poverty level, although it performs an extraordinary service for the whole population.
(This interview was translated into English by Michael J. Miller and published by CWR with the kind permission of the editor of L’Avvenire.)
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