As Russian Troops Advance, Vatican’s Ukraine Envoy Says He’s Staying in Kyiv

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ROME — Currently in Kyiv, the Vatican’s ambassador to Ukraine said that regardless of expectations of an imminent Russian assault on the city, he is determined to stay and be with the people as a sign of closeness to the pope.

Talk to SIRthe Italian bishops’ official news agency, Bishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, who was appointed apostolic nuncio to Ukraine in June 2021, said he made the difficult decision to stay in Kyiv “because we are not just an embassy.”

“Here I represent the pope to the people and the churches in Ukraine. I not only have the duty, but also the opportunity to be close to people. So my place is here,” he said.

If the situation escalates and it becomes “humanly impossible to stay,” Kulbokas said, the question of whether to leave will come up, “but for now, if we manage to stay here, we won’t move. not”.

Now in its eighth day after invading Russia early last Thursday, the war in Ukraine is claiming more casualties as Russian troops increasingly target urban areas in their pushback against Ukraine’s defense.

A Russian convoy about 40 miles long is said to be closing in on Kiev, where citizens have sheltered for days in subways and basements as overhead sirens warn of shelling.

The city’s iconic Independence Square has been surrounded in recent days by barricades with sandbags and Czech hedgehogs to block the path of tanks. Grocery stores are scarce and the streets are largely empty except for a handful of people queuing at the pharmacy or supermarkets.

Ukrainian troops carry out checks for possible Russian spies searching strategic locations, stopping cars and people on foot to carry out bag and vehicle checks.

So far, some 2,800 Ukrainian soldiers are estimated to have died since the invasion of Russia last Thursday, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has so far recorded around 752 civilian casualties in Ukraine, with 227 killed and 525 injured.

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, at least 498 soldiers have been killed in Ukraine and more than 1,500 wounded, although Ukrainian authorities report a much higher Russian casualty rate.

Those numbers are expected to rise as fighting continues and Ukrainian and Russian forces battle for Kiev in the coming days.

Speaking about the current situation in Kyiv, Kulbokas said that the Vatican Embassy is in one of the central neighborhoods and he is staying there with two collaborators and a group of nuns working there.

Kulbokas said that in the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion, they, like everyone else, stockpiled food and water so they would have reserves in case the situation got worse, but no one thought war would actually break out.

“So we will have food and water for a while, but certainly not for very long,” he said, noting that some Ukrainians are already affected by what is likely to become a serious humanitarian crisis.

“As the days go by, this will spread to the whole city of Kyiv”, but in other cities like Kharkiv, which has seen heavy fighting, and Odessa, Mariupol and Kherson, “the situation is similar”, a- he declared.

The humanitarian situation “is bound to get worse”, he said, saying another of his major concerns from the start was the plight of the elderly and the sick.

“How do you manage to get treatment in these situations? Especially for those who could not, nor had the strength to evacuate, and who stayed,” he said.

There are also concerns for pregnant women who are about to give birth, Kulbokas said, noting that many children are born in underground shelters, without specialized care or medical assistance.

“The drama is strong,” he said.

Referring to the numerous explosions that have been heard on the outskirts of Kyiv since the fighting began, Kulbokas said the nunciature has identified several areas it considers “relatively more protected” in the event of a missile attack.

At the moment, people are sleeping on mattresses which they have placed in various makeshift shelters, notably in the basement of certain buildings.

Masses are also celebrated in places considered safe, however, Kulbokas said he always keeps a backpack close by containing the essentials: water, documents and a phone, “to be ready for anything. “.

Speaking about his own decision to stay, Kulbokas said conveying the pope’s closeness to the Ukrainian people has “a very strong meaning for me too, because being here, in a way, we can feel the drama of those who are suffering. gunfire, cold, danger, injury and even death.

“But we can also feel very strongly the solidarity between Ukrainians, of all faiths and religions,” he said, saying he receives a call every day from the mufti of Kiev asking if they have enough food. and water, or if they need to house someone.

Catholics and Orthodox, as well as Jews, do the same for each other within their churches, he said, adding: “There is a lot of solidarity and to see this unity is a beautiful and very strong experience.

Kulbokas said he also feels the solidarity of those outside Ukraine who are praying for peace, saying, “It feels as if we are these days the spiritual capital of the world or on the other hand the drama is met but also the beautiful response of humanity on the other hand.

Referring to the pope’s many appeals on social media and his own diplomatic approach to the war, Kulbokas said he had received countless calls from people expressing their gratitude for the pope’s prayers and his many pleas for peace. .

Pope Francis, he said, “is certainly close to the suffering Ukraine, but he is close to everyone. The Pope said that war must always be stopped, no reason can justify war. War is the work of the devil and therefore every effort should be made to stop it.

The main task of the Church is to “reconcile everyone” and to foster a spirit of brotherhood on all sides, Kulbokas said, expressing his desire that “everyone should join in this mission of condemnation of war and spiritual union and peace with everyone”. ”

Speaking about the Day of Prayer and Fasting for Peace in Ukraine requested by the Pope and which took place on Ash Wednesday, Kulbokas said it was a very important gesture for Ukrainians.

“Sometimes we have doubts about the prayer, as if it were just a personal plea. Prayer is not only that: it is also solidarity with those who are not believers, it is closeness, it is fraternity. It contributes to peace because it destroys the very foundations of war,” he said.

Prayer, he added, “eliminates arrogance, lack of responsibility, it generates conversion, it gives us the spirit of humility. Prayer unites us both with God and among all of us, and in prayer we again become in God his sons and brothers and sisters for one another.

“When God sees us like this,” he said, “he cannot remain indifferent and not give us peace as a gift.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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