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Ukrainians reject Pope’s ‘white flag’ remarks

13 March 2024

Church leaders insist that freedom, not surrender, is needed


On Wednesday, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, and his counterpart from Moldova, Mihai Popsoi, laid flowers at the Memory Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in Kyiv

On Wednesday, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, and his counterpart from Moldova, Mihai Popsoi, laid flowers at the Memory Wall of Fallen...

CHURCHES in Ukraine have reacted bitterly to a call by Pope Francis last weekend for their country to “raise the white flag” and negotiate peace with Russia.

“Faithful church members are defending freedom and life on the battle front, fighting for human dignity and the free world’s future — we categorically declare that no one will ever force our people to capitulate,” the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations said in a statement on Sunday.

“We pray for peace every day — for our soldiers to return from the front lines, hostages from captivity and refugees from foreign lands, for understanding between peoples and the healing of wounds caused by war. But surrendering to the mercy of this enemy is not about peace: it is about victory of slavery over freedom, darkness over light.”

The Council — a grouping of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders, as well as Jews and Muslims — was reacting to the Pope’s remarks in a weekend interview with Switzerland’s Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS) media network, when he suggested that Ukrainians should “have the courage to negotiate” before the situation worsened.

The Council said that “capitulation to triumphant evil” would destroy “the universal idea of justice” and betray “fundamental guidelines bequeathed by the great spiritual traditions”, and have bloody consequences for Europe and the world.

The Primate of the Ukrainian independent Orthodox Church (OCU), Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), said that the idea of “reaching agreement with evil” in hopes that it might then “stop attacking us” was “just one of the devil’s temptations”.

“The power of evil and its temptations is great — and many people cannot resist them and offer a white flag,” the Metropolitan said in a Sunday homily in Kyiv. “But the martyrs did not lay down their spiritual weapons before the power of untruth. Nor did they capitulate, ask for mercy from their tormentors, or seek a compromise with them.”

In his interview with RTS, the Pope urged Ukrainians to accept mediation offers from Turkey and other countries, and not be “ashamed to negotiate before things get worse. . . I believe the stronger one is the one who sees the situation, thinks of the people, and has the courage of the white flag,” he said.

“The word ‘negotiate’ is a courageous word. When you see you are defeated, that things are not going well, it is necessary to have the courage to negotiate.”

Answering media questions, the director of the Vatican press office, Matteo Bruni, said that the Pope had spoken of a “white flag” in response to an “image proposed by the interviewer”, to indicate “a cessation of hostilities”, but had also clearly stated that “negotiations are never a surrender.”

On Tuesday, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told Italy’s daily paper Corriere della Sera that the Pope had addressed his appeal to both sides, while recognising that responsibility for ending hostilities rested “first and foremost with the aggressor”.

The Pope’s words were rejected in a weekend video message, however, by President Zelensky, who thanked church members who were “really close, with actions and prayers” rather than “2500 kilometres away, engaging in virtual mediation between the one who wants to live and the one who wants to destroy them”.

The Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmitro Kuleba, urged the Vatican to “avoid repeating mistakes” from the “first half of the 20th century”, and called on the Pope to visit Ukraine and support its six million Catholics.

“Our flag is yellow and blue,” Mr Kuleba wrote in a social media post. “This is the flag we live, die and prevail by, and we shall never raise any other flags.”

The Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See, Andrii Yuras, said that he hoped to meet the Pope to explain why it was “worth turning to Russia, not Ukraine”; while the Kyiv Foreign Ministry confirmed that it had summoned the Vatican’s Lithuanian Nuncio, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, on Monday, to express “disappointment” over the Pope’s words, which appeared to “legalise the right of the strong and encourage them to disregard the norms of international law”.

It added that the Nuncio had been reminded of Kyiv’s peace proposals, based on UN Charter principles, and said that Ukraine counted on the Pope “to appeal to the attacker, not the victim”.

Ukrainians have protested against previous remarks about the war by the Argentina-born Pope, whose Italian peace envoy, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, has held talks in Kyiv, Moscow, and other capitals — most recently in August, when he called on Russian Catholics to uphold the legacy of their country’s “great and enlightened empire”.

Responding to his “white flag” call, the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, warned on Monday that “surrender does not mean peace”; and a spokesman for the European Union, Peter Stano, told a press briefing on Tuesday that a “just peace” would depend on President Putin, who “continues to incite war every day”.

Among other church reactions, the governing synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church said that most Russians agreed with President Putin that Ukraine was merely “an ideological construct to be destroyed”. Russian occupation would bring the suppression of “all religions, institutions, and cultural manifestations that do not support Russian domination”.

In its Sunday statement, the synod said that the Russian Orthodox Church, which this week took over parts of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia diocese, was also supporting the “genocidal war”, requiring Ukrainians to continue defending their “freedom and dignity”, regardless of calls “by representatives of various states, including the Holy Father”.

On Tuesday, Roman Catholic bishops in Germany said that they understood “people’s irritation” at the Pope’s remarks, and called on the Vatican to “clarify its position”.

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