In a March 17 meeting with the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Pope Francis expressed the Holy See’s commitment to building peace amid the country’s political crisis. Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halyc traveled to Rome for a private encounter with Vatican officials to discuss the political unrest in the country and Crimeans’ vote to join Russia. Crimea, a southern peninsula of Ukraine, has been occupied by pro-Russian forces since Feb. 27. A majority of the population is ethnic Russian, and in a referendum held Sunday, 97 percent of voters backed splitting from Ukraine to join Russia. On Tuesday, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Crimean leaders signed a treaty to absorb the peninsula into Russia. Shortly thereafter, one Ukrainian military officer was killed and another was wounded in an attack on a base in the Crimean capital Simferopol. In a statement released by the information department of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, it was noted that Pope Francis is following the events unfolding in Ukraine “with great attention.” “The Holy Father expressed words of solidarity to the Ukrainian people for the suffering and the dangers that is now before them.” He has assured the Ukrainian people that the Holy See “will do everything possible for peace in Eastern Europe, especially to avoid any escalation of the conflict,” the statement reports. Meeting with Pope Francis yesterday morning, Archbishop Shevchuk also spoke with Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin later that afternoon, recounting the events which have taken place over the last three months. During the discussion Archbishop Shevchuk highlighted that “the mission of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has always been to be with the people and among the people,” which is “why the priests were in Maidan Square with the people” during the deadly protests which took place from November through February. Also discussed in Archbishop Shevchuk’s meeting with the Pope was the role of the Council of Churches and religious organizations throughout Ukraine in the building of peace in the country. Recalling the persecution of the Church during the Soviet era, the archbishop relayed to the Pope that at the time “the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was able to survive only thanks to unity with the Successor of Peter.” Pope Francis assured the archbishop that “the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church will never be lacking the protection of the Holy See,” and concluded the meeting by imparting his apostolic blessing to all the Ukrainian people. Protests in the capital Kyiv began in November, when the government announced it would not sign a major economic partnership agreement with the European Union, in favor of a $15 billion bailout agreement with Russia. The protests culminated in the death of more than 70 persons in February, and the flight of the country’s pro-Russia president. On Feb. 23, pro-Western Oleksander Turchynov was appointed acting president by parliament. Subsequently, pro-Russian forces effectively took control of Crimea, which had been transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 under the Soviet Union. Kyiv and Western governments have refused to acknowledge as legal Crimea’s union with Russia, placing travel bans and asset freezes on some Russian government officials.