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Ukrainian Catholic archbishop offers ‘special thanks’ to pope on ‘all for all’ prisoner exchange plea

Pope Francis gives his Christmas blessing “urbi et orbi” (to the city and the world) from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 25, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

The head of the worldwide Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has offered his gratitude following Pope Francis’s plea for an “all for all” prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine.

On Easter March 31, Pope Francis issued the “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the city and to the world”) blessing, continuing a papal tradition introduced in the 13th century.

In his message accompanying the blessing (which is associated with a plenary indulgence), the pope said the “doors of life” opened by “Jesus alone” are “continually … shut with the wars spreading throughout the world.”

“In calling for respect for the principles of international law, I express my hope for a general exchange of all prisoners between Russia and Ukraine: all for the sake of all!” said Pope Francis.

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk released a video message later that day in which he said “the words of the Easter greeting of the Holy Father Francis had a special response in the Ukrainian heart.”

“I express special thanks to the Pope on behalf of the families of our prisoners of war for the call for the Easter exchange of ‘all for all,’” said Major Archbishop Shevchuk. “We hope that the powerful of this world will hear your words, and Ukrainian and Russian families will wait for their dearest ones to come home.”

Last month, Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry’s Intelligence Directorate, told reporters on hand for one prisoner exchange that 3,235 Ukrainian fighters have so far been brought home.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 – determined to be a genocide in two joint reports from the New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights – an unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers, likely numbering in the thousands, have been captured by Russia, with a large number subjected to torture in violation of international humanitarian law.

On March 26, the United Nations’ Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine released a report detailing a sharp increase in “credible allegations of executions of captured Ukrainian POWs” in Russian custody.

Torture, beatings, electric shocks and denial of adequate food and medical attention were routinely experienced by Ukrainian POWs, over half of whom “were subjected to sexual violence,” U.N. investigators said.

Ukrainian camps for an estimated thousands of Russian POWs have been documented as adhering to international law, providing regular meals, hygienic care, free time, contact with loved ones by phone and even optional assembly-line work for small sums of pay.

In his message, Major Archbishop Shevchuk also thanked the Vatican’s top diplomats for supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty.

“We thank Vatican Secretary of State (Cardinal) Pietro Parolin for his statement that aggressor Russia must be the first to stop attacking, attacking, killing Ukrainians so that negotiations on a peaceful and diplomatic settlement of this war can begin,” said Major Archbishop Shevchuk. “After all, we understand (that) when Russia stops attacking us, there will be no war, and when Ukraine stops defending itself, there will be no Ukrainian people and their state.”

He also commended Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, secretary for Relations with States and International Organizations, who in a recent interview with America Magazine said, “We still support the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

“We do not endorse that the boundaries of countries should be changed by force. So that remains our position,” said Archbishop Gallagher in the interview. “We consider that a just position, and that is our position toward Ukraine.”

“The apostolic capital respects the sovereignty, independence and inviolability of Ukraine’s borders,” said Major Archbishop Shevchuk. “For Ukrainians, these words spoken to the heart of the international community are extremely important.”