As the threat of a Russian military incursion in Ukraine continues to loom, European bishops have urged peace, asking that both international law and the sovereignty of each nation involved in the conflict be respected while tensions escalate.
In the statement, signed by Archbishop Gintaras Linas Grušas of Vilnius, Lithuania, President of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE), the bishops conveyed their closeness to Ukraine and urged the international community to offer support “in the face of the danger of a Russian military offensive.”
“While the entire international community interprets the actions of the Russian military forces as a real threat to peace throughout the world, we embrace – in this time of fear and uncertainty for the future of the country – our brothers and sisters in the faith and all the people of Ukraine,” they said.
In recent months, Russia has amassed around 100,000 troops at Ukraine’s border, with an estimated 175,000 poised for a military operation that could begin sometime in the next few weeks.
After Ukrainian citizens ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych in 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimean peninsula and backed separatists who overtook large swaths of the country’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
That move came just 23 years after Ukraine gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to which it belonged. Ukraine still maintains deep social and cultural ties with Russia, and the Russian language is widely spoken.
In the years since the conflict in eastern Ukraine began, shelling and sniper attacks have become a daily occurrence, with the United Nations estimating that so far around 1.5 million people have been displaced and an estimated 14,000 have died, many of whom were civilians.
Russia has long resisted Ukraine’s advances toward European institutions and its efforts to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Recently, Russia has been pushing for a promise from the West that Ukraine will not be allowed to join NATO.
Negotiations are currently underway, and while Russia has insisted that they have no plans to invade Ukraine, tensions remain high and Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened “appropriate retaliatory military-technical measures” if what he perceives as the West’s aggressive approach to the issue continues.
Russia has also demanded that NATO cease further expansion into Eastern Europe and that they put an end to military activity in the region. If that were to happen, NATO troops would be pulled out of Poland and the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Observers watching the situation play out fear the gathering of Russian troops could mean an offensive is being planned for early 2022, which could jeopardize European security as a whole.
In their statement, CCEE echoed statements made by Pope Francis in support of Ukraine, urging those involved to “resolve the crisis through serious dialogue and not with arms.”
Citing the pope’s recent speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, they stressed that “Reciprocal trust and readiness to engage in calm discussion should also inspire all parties at stake, so that acceptable and lasting solutions can be found in Ukraine.”
The bishops appealed to international leaders, asking that “they do not forget the tragic World Wars of the last century and so that international law as well as the independence and territorial sovereignty of each country will be defended.”
“Together with the Holy Father, we want to call on Governments to find acceptable and lasting solutions in Ukraine based on dialogue and negotiation and without resorting to arms,” they said.
“At this extremely delicate time, we ask Christians to pray for the gift of peace in Ukraine so that those responsible may be filled with, and radiate, a peace that is contagious and that the crisis will be overcome exclusively through dialogue,” they said.
Pope Francis has repeatedly voiced his closeness to Ukraine and it is rumored that he will visit the country sometime this year.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy first issued the invitation for a papal visit when he met Francis in Feb. 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic erupted. Zelenskyy reiterated the invite last summer during a private phone call with the pope.
The last pope to visit Ukraine was St. John Paul II in 2001, when he became the first pontiff in modern history to travel to the former Soviet nation.
In his Jan. 23 Sunday Angelus address, Pope Francis voiced concern over the recent escalation in tensions along the Ukrainian border, saying these tensions “threaten to inflict a new blow to peace in Ukraine” and “question security on the European continent.”
He issued an appeal to all people of goodwill “to raise their prayers to Almighty God, so that every political action and initiative be at the service of human fraternity, rather than partisan interests.”
“Whoever pursues their own goals to the detriment of others despises their own vocation as a human being, because we have all been created brothers and sisters,” he said.
In a bid to quell rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine, Pope Francis designated this coming Wednesday, Jan. 26, as a day of prayer for peace.