ROME – Prelates attending a major conference on the Mediterranean region being held in Florence, Italy, have raised their voices in support of the Ukrainian people after Russia began an invasion of its neighbor.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk was expected to attend the gathering, as Ukraine sits at the crossroads between the Mediterranean and the East. However, he chose to skip the summit to “stay close to his people”. According to a statement released by his office, as the summit unfolded on Thursday he was in a bunker under Kiev’s Resurrection Cathedral “with many people” as explosions were reported in the Ukrainian capital.
The Russian invasion reshaped the remarks of many meeting participants, with many bishops emphasizing the role of religions in building peace.
Bishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, said “the religious element is fundamental due to the closeness between politics and faith,” referring to the close connection between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.
“Bearing in mind the question of citizenship which obliges us, it is very indicative, because religion cannot be instrumental to political visions, a problem that we also have in the Middle East and North Africa”, said the Italian prelate, who served for a long time in the Holy Land.
Defining the role and relationship between religion, identity, nation and citizenship are very current issues, Pizzaballa said, acknowledging that this relationship is “lived, unfortunately, in a non-positive way in the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine, where the religious element is instrumental.
He also called for the importance of interreligious dialogue – ecumenical efforts between Russian Catholics and Orthodox being key to this conflict – for relationships to be built, not as instruments of politics but to help politics have a broader view.
“We must avoid by all means that religion fuels the reasons for war,” said Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, Archbishop of Florence and host of the summit, organized by the Italian Episcopal Conference.
“And that only happens when religion doesn’t morph into fundamentalism and become an instrument of populism and nationalism,” he said. “Any claim of annexation by a political power must be rejected.”
He also urged congregants to pray for peace, as peace is “not something men build, it is a gift they receive from God. We are not capable of making peace, we are capable of making war. If we are welcoming, we receive from God the gift of peace.
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg insisted on the importance of dialogue between politicians and religious, because “God is a father for everyone, not just for certain nations”.
Similar appeals were made by different European Bishops’ Conferences throughout the day.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma