Pope Francis today met with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, discussing both the good relations between Ukraine and the Vatican, as well as their shared concerns over the current conflict with Russia. A Nov. 20 communique from the Vatican described the encounter as “cordial,” with discussion “dedicated principally to matters connected with the situation of conflict in the country.” Conflict erupted in Ukraine in February of last year when the country’s former president was ousted following months of violent protest, and a new government appointed. In March 2014 Ukraine’s eastern peninsula of Crimea was annexed by Russia, and pro-Russian separatist rebels have since taken control of eastern portions of Ukraine around Donetsk and Luhansk. It is estimated that nearly 6,000 people have died in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Rebels have been supported by both Russian arms and troops, according to both Ukraine and Western nations. A ceasefire agreed on in Minsk officially began at midnight Feb. 15, and called for all sides to pull back heavy weapons. However, despite the agreement of a ceasefire and the slight fall in violence since it was reached, numerous violations have been reported, broadening the country’s humanitarian crisis and number of casualties. In the Pope’s Nov. 20 meeting with Poroshenko, the hope was expressed that political solutions could be found to the conflict with the commitment of all parties involved, beginning with “the full implementation of the Minsk Accords.” Difficulties surrounding the humanitarian crisis, particularly the access of specialized organizations to affected areas, were also addressed. Healthcare, the exchange of prisoners, and the economic and social repercussions of the conflict, which are felt throughout the country, were other topics brought up. Also highlighted was the important role of the Church in society, as well as the positive contribution of both the Greek Catholic and Latin Rites to the life of the country. In a May interview with CNA, the head of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said the country is facing a “humanitarian catastrophe” with global consequences that cannot be ignored by the international community. “The aggression against Ukraine is a challenge for preserving peace in the world which cannot pretend that nothing happens in Eastern Europe,” he said. Archbishop Shevchuk is the major archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, an eastern rite Catholic Church in full communion with Rome. He stressed that Eastern Europe is currently facing “a humanitarian catastrophe which, considering the territory it might effect, is the greatest crisis since the end of the WWII.” Pope Francis’ meeting with Poroshenko falls just five months after he met with Russian president Vladmir Putin for the second time in June. On that occasion, the conflict in the Ukraine comprised the majority of the discussion, with Pope Francis stressing the importance of working for peace. When exchanging gifts, Pope Francis gave the president a large medal of the Angel of Peace crafted by artist Guido Veroi as well as a copy of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. When giving Putin the medal, Francis told him that this is “the angel of peace, who defeats all war and speaks about solidarity among peoples,” and said that the joy of the Gospel “has many religious, human, geopolitical and social reflections” while handing him the exhortation.
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