Canadian Catholic leaders call for more diplomacy in Ukraine

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A woman walks past blocks of apartments in Selydove, Ukraine, Feb. 19, 2024, that were destroyed in a Russian airstrike. (OSV News photo/Thomas Peter, Reuters)

(OSV News) — As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine reaches the two-year mark, religious leaders in Canada and Ukraine have issued statements calling for justice, peace and broad support of Ukraine’s recovery.

Bishop William T. McGrattan of Calgary, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Metropolitan Archbishop Lawrence D. Huculak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Winnipeg are two of the 45 signatories of the Feb. 16 pastoral letter “Ukraine, Canada and the Church.” The document — issued in English, French and Ukrainian — was produced in collaboration with representatives of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant faith communities, the World Evangelical Alliance’s Peace and Reconciliation Network, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Canadian Council of Churches.

The text of the letter, written as “an invitation to prayer and action for peace,” was developed through “a shared journey” undertaken a year ago by the signatories, who met to explore “the spiritual and historical backdrop of the conflict in Ukraine, the ongoing realities faced by Ukrainians who have been welcomed to Canada, and the prospects for peace in Ukraine.”

“Not since World War II has Europe experienced the violence and destruction it now witnesses as a result of Russia’s invasion,” said the letter.

‘Massive’ human suffering

Launched on Feb. 24, 2022, the invasion continues attacks initiated in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the backing of military separatists in Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. Two joint reports from the New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights have determined Russia’s invasion constitutes genocide, with Ukraine reporting more than 125,834 war crimes committed by Russia to date in Ukraine since February 2022.

Ukrainian servicemen of the 65th Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces walk next to an abandoned armored personnel carrier Feb. 21, 2024, near the front-line village of Robotyne, amid a Russian attack on Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region. (OSV News photo/Reuters)

In March 2023, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, for the unlawful deportation and transfer of at least 19,546 children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.

At present, 6.5 million Ukrainian refugees have been recorded globally, with 3.7 million internally displaced persons in Ukraine as of September 2023, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.N.’s Displacement Tracking Matrix respectively.

“Our entire world has been affected by the Ukrainian refugee crisis, the economic fallout, and the difficulty of exporting Ukrainian agricultural products (which is felt especially hard in the Global South),” said the letter.

“The level of human suffering is massive,” said the signatories, citing the “hundreds of thousands” of military casualties on both sides, as well as Russia’s violations of “basic human rights and freedoms,” including religious freedom, and its deportation of tens of thousands of Ukrainian children.

“Without in any way minimizing or ignoring the suffering and sorrow caused by war and violence in other areas of the world, we stand together in inviting Christians and all people of good will to prayerfully consider how we are all called, and might contribute to, the achievement of peace in and for Ukraine,” said the letter.

Six ways to attain peace

The signatories listed six ways for attaining that end, calling on readers to pray, support Ukrainian refugees; urge diplomatic steps toward a just and sustainable peace in Ukraine; seek cooperative relationships of humanitarian support; remember the Feb. 24, 2022, full-scale invasion; and hope for reconciliation.

The All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations also issued a statement ahead of the invasion anniversary, noting that Russia’s “war of aggression” since 2014 had violated “international rules and regulations … caused enormous suffering” and “the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.”

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, Ukraine, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, leaves the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall Oct. 6, 2023, after the morning session of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The major archbishop is on All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, which issued a statement Feb. 22, 2024, noting “the enormous suffering” and deaths of hundreds of thousands of people caused by Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine begun Feb. 24, 2022. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

The council — which includes Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church — said in its Feb. 22 letter, sent to OSV News in Italian, that Russia had committed “brutal violations of human rights and civil liberties in the temporarily occupied territories, including the systematic violation of religious freedom and the destruction of cities and civilian infrastructure.”

Yet despite Russia’s plan “to besiege Ukraine in a short time” — with many in the global community “(sharing) the same prediction” of success — “there were two elements that could not be predicted: first, God’s help to Ukraine, and second, the resilience and unshakable spirit of the Ukrainian people, which comes from God.”

Return of children and civilian prisoners

The Ukrainian church and religious leaders expressed their gratitude to Ukraine’s defenders, citizens, international partners and all people of goodwill.

They urged the international community to “continue their efforts to protect Ukraine from Russian aggression,” and called for “the return to Ukraine of Ukrainian children, civilians and prisoners of war illegally deported (to) Russia.”

At the same time, they appealed to Ukraine’s government to preserve cohesion and transparency, while “(preserving) religious freedom from external manipulation.”

The leaders also exhorted the Ukrainian people to remain steadfast in their fight for liberty.

“We address the Ukrainian people and urge them to remain courageous in this struggle of good against evil, to believe in the victory of light over darkness, to support each other, to be united and maintain unity,” said the leaders. “We urge you not to ‘give up’ due to tiredness or indignation at internal challenges, not to accept the enemy’s propaganda about ‘resignation’ regarding the occupation, and to advance together towards a great Victory and the establishment of a just peace.”

Gina Christian

Gina Christian is a National Reporter for OSV News.