Pope Francis has told a gathering of world leaders that “the forces of evil” have been at work in the Ukraine war because of abominations such as the massacre of civilians.
“The present moment leaves us deeply troubled, because it is marked by the forces of evil,” he said in a message read during a visit to Ukraine by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, and faith leaders representing Christian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism as a sign of solidarity with Ukraine’s people.
The Pope added: “The suffering inflicted on so many frail and defenceless persons; the many civilians massacred and the innocent victims among the young; the desperate plight of women and children … All this troubles our consciences.”
The Grand Mufti of Bosnia and the minister general of the Franciscan Friars were among those met victims of the war and attended a meeting at the main theatre in the city of Chernivtsi, where Pope Francis’s message was read. His words raised hopes that the Pope will soon intervene directly in the conflict by meeting the Russian Orthodox patriarch, who has backed the invasion of Ukraine.
This week’s visit was the initiative of Rabbi Dr Alon Goshen-Gottstein, the director and founder of the Elijah Interfaith Institute in Israel, who says the visit is an historic first.
“This is the first time that an interfaith delegation has undertaken a mission of friendship in entering a country at war,” he said. “This is all the more remarkable considering the high level of the religious representatives who are combining forces to provide solidarity and comfort in this time of conflict.”
Before the visit, Lord Williams, whose visit was supported by his successor, Archbishop Justin Welby, said those attending wanted to show support for Ukrainians and let them know they were not forgotten. He told the Church Times: “The purpose is a very modest one: we simply want to affirm our solidarity with victims of this appalling war, and express thanks for the courage shown by the Ukrainian people, in the hope that we can at least let them know that they are not forgotten”.
In March, speaking at a Religion Media Centre briefing on the war, Lord Williams, a Russian speaker and expert on Orthodoxy, attempted to explain Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. “We see Russia as an immense and threatening force but Russia sees itself as a victim because it is faithful to Orthodox Christianity,” he said.
“There is a sense that Russia has a vocation … people in Orthodoxy say they stand for God-given values. For the Russians, Ukraine is a problem: ‘It looks like us, but it isn’t’.”
But since then, Lord Williams’s view has hardened, and he has called for the Russian Orthodox Church to be excluded from the World Council of Churches because of its support for the invasion.
Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow, has been vocal in his backing for the President Vladimir Putin of Russia — a stance that has split the worldwide Orthodox church. Lord Williams said: “Anecdotal information suggests that a small but significant number of Russian clergy, especially in larger urban contexts where western news still permeates, are deeply concerned and very unhappy with the patriarchal position, but apprehensive about speaking up, given the draconian sanctions threatened to anyone who questions the official Russian account of events.”
The Vatican has indicated that Pope Francis might try to meet Patriarch Kirill in Jerusalem in June. Previously the Pope has said that he is willing to travel to Kyiv to meet political and religious leaders who have invited him there.
The full list of the delegation to Ukraine:
- Archbishop Rowan Williams (Anglican, UK), emeritus Archbishop of Canterbury, representing the present Archbishop of Canterbury.
- Archbishop Nikitas Lulias (Greek Orthodox, UK), Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Great Britain under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, representing Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew.
- Grand Mufti Mustafa Cerić (Muslim, Bosnia), emeritus Grand Mufti of Bosnia, and present head of the World Bosniak Congress
- Brother Massimo Fusarelli (Catholic, Italy), minister general of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor
- Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg (Jewish, UK), president of the Council of Christians and Jews, and senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism
- Swami Atmapriyananda, (Hindu, India), vice-chancellor, Vivekananda University, Belur Math
- Rabbi Daniel Kohn (Jewish, Israel), Chief Rabbi, Bat-Ayin
- Grand Imam Yahya Pallavacini (Muslim, Italy), president and Imam of the Islamic Religious Community of Italy and adviser on Islam to Italy’s Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Education
- Sister Giác Nghiêm, (Buddhist, France), Abbess of Maison de l’Inspir (of Plum Village)
- Swami Rameshwarananda (Hindu, Spain), president of the Phi School of Vedanta
- Sister Maureen Goodman (Brahma Kumari, UK), programme director for Brahma Kumaris, UK and the Brahma Kumaris representative at the United Nations, Vienna
- Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein (Jewish, Israel), founder and executive director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute