Pope Francis Asks for Diplomatic Solution to Crimea Standoff With Ukraine

Pope Francis is seeking a diplomatic end to a Russian standoff with Ukraine over the Russian annexation of Crimea, underscoring the gravity of the conflict that has escalated in recent months.

The pope, who is in Kiev in his first visit to the country, told the country’s president in a meeting Tuesday that “peace now requires a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Ukraine,” according to a statement from the Vatican read out at a ceremony later.

“Your desire to have the Catholic Church active in the affairs of Ukraine is an expression of your own culture, but it also is a common effort,” the pope said, calling the conflict between Ukraine and Russia “an evil in the service of unjust powers.”

While Francis did not name Russia, his words appeared to refer to Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 that drew international condemnation and intensified tensions between Moscow and Kiev.

In a separate meeting with leaders of Ukrainian nationalist groups, Francis addressed “the current situation of unrest in the Ukraine,” adding that the conflict “could take new turns and new radical forms,” according to the statement.

Protesters have clashed repeatedly with police in Kiev over recent weeks as lawmakers prepare for a vote in parliament on the dissolution of the country’s unpopular anti-secession parliament. There has been an uptick in nationalist demonstrations in the country in recent days.

Efforts to deepen the local church’s involvement in the country’s politics have sparked an already tense national atmosphere.

The head of Ukraine’s Catholic Church, Cardinal Semyon Slepak, has criticized moves by Ukrainian nationalists to replace the Kiev Patriarchate in churches as “political bullying” and called the efforts to destabilize his leadership “an attack on the church and the peace of the nation.”

A spokesman for the Ukrainian church, Peter Tokho, warned last week that the country’s Catholic Church was being marginalized as nationalists “are attempting to present themselves as the sole guardians of the Kiev Patriarchate,” a statement that came amid a tense standoff between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels in the Donbass region.

He said that a move to take over the Kiev Patriarchate of the church could lead to greater “religious extremism” in the country.

The Argentine pontiff was in Kiev for a three-day visit to gather inspiration for the upcoming Year of Mercy. During his tour, Francis will attend a Mass in Independence Square on Wednesday evening where he will celebrate the final blessing of an open-air Mass that drew some 400,000 pilgrims during the pope’s visit to the capital on Saturday.

Francis arrived in Kiev in the late afternoon Tuesday, some 200 miles from the rebel-held city of Donetsk, which is approximately 45 miles south of the Russia- Ukraine border.

His visit to Kiev comes at a time of heightened tensions between Ukraine and Russia, as the second round of peace talks between the rebels and the Kiev government failed to make progress over the weekend.

The pontiff is scheduled to meet with officials from Ukraine’s government and from Eastern Orthodox Churches in addition to Muslim leaders on Tuesday, according to the Vatican.

“He does not only have the sacredness to address all of us, but also the responsibility to be concerned about the fate of all citizens, including refugees and the wounded,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement, the Miami Herald reported.

Ukrainian politicians have also appealed to the pope for a concrete solution to the conflict in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russia-backed separatists in recent months have emerged as de facto governments and separatists have taken over key government buildings.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned in a recent press briefing that talks to end the crisis could reach an impasse.

“There is no breakthrough or agreement yet,” Poroshenko said in July, according to the Times of India. “What we are lacking is a political decision.”

The matter took on new urgency in recent weeks as UN leaders warned of a humanitarian crisis in the rebel-held regions and the International Committee of the Red Cross urged the Ukrainian government to allow in much-needed aid.

Diplomats and officials from both Russia and Ukraine, meanwhile, have reportedly arrived in Geneva ahead of the UN’s High-Level Conference on Peace and Justice scheduled for next week.

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