‘God guides us away from war’, says the Pope as he appears to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Pope Francis today said that God does not guide religions towards the ‘evil’ of war, as he appeared to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Pope, 85, told the Russian Orthodoxy hierarchy and other faith leaders that those in powerful religious positions must ‘never be a prop for power’, in an implicit criticism of Patriarch Kirill, who backs Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. 

On his second day in Kazakhstan, Francis addressed the Seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, a meeting that brings together Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other faiths.  

Kirill was supposed to have participated in the congress but cancelled last month. 

Kirill has supported Russia’s invasion on spiritual and ideological grounds, calling it a ‘metaphysical’ battle with the West. He has blessed Russian soldiers going into war and invoked the idea that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) sent a delegation headed by its number two, Metropolitan Anthony, who later briefly met the pope.

Pope Francis today said that God does not guide religions towards the ‘evil’ of war, as he appeared to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) sent a delegation headed by its number two, Metropolitan Anthony, who later briefly met the pope

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) sent a delegation headed by its number two, Metropolitan Anthony, who later briefly met the pope

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) sent a delegation headed by its number two, Metropolitan Anthony, who later briefly met the pope

A Ukrainian serviceman stands on a destroyed Russian armed personnel carrier in Ukraine

A Ukrainian serviceman stands on a destroyed Russian armed personnel carrier in Ukraine

A Ukrainian serviceman stands on a destroyed Russian armed personnel carrier in Ukraine 

‘God is peace. He guides us always in the way of peace, never that of war,’ Francis said, speaking at a huge round table in the Independence Palace, a massive modern structure made of steel and glass in the capital of the former Soviet republic.

Francis didn’t mention Russia or Ukraine in his remarks to the Kazakh conference. But he insisted that faith leaders themselves must take the lead in promoting a culture of peace, since it would be hypocritical to expect that non-believers would promote peace if religious leaders don’t.

‘If the creator, to whom we have devoted our lives, is the author of human life, how can we who call ourselves believers consent to the destruction of that life?’ he asked. ‘Mindful of the wrongs and errors of the past, let us unite our efforts to ensure that the Almighty will never again be held hostage to the human thirst for power.’

Francis then laid down a challenge to all those in the room to commit themselves to resolving disputes through dialogue and negotiation, not with arms.

‘Let us commit ourselves, then, even more to insisting on the need for resolving conflicts not by the inconclusive means of power, with arms and threats, but by the only means blessed by heaven and worthy of man: encounter, dialogue and patient negotiations,’ he said. 

The pope, who earlier this year said Kirill could not be Putin’s ‘altar boy’, told the conference: ‘May we never justify violence. May we never allow the sacred to be exploited by the profane. The sacred must never be a prop for power, nor power a prop for the sacred!’

The Pope, 85, told the Russian Orthodoxy hierarchy and other faith leaders that those in powerful religious positions must 'never be a prop for power', in an implicit criticism of Patriarch Kirill, who backs Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine. Pictured: Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill stand together after a meeting in Havana in 2016

The Pope, 85, told the Russian Orthodoxy hierarchy and other faith leaders that those in powerful religious positions must 'never be a prop for power', in an implicit criticism of Patriarch Kirill, who backs Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine. Pictured: Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill stand together after a meeting in Havana in 2016

The Pope, 85, told the Russian Orthodoxy hierarchy and other faith leaders that those in powerful religious positions must ‘never be a prop for power’, in an implicit criticism of Patriarch Kirill, who backs Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Pictured: Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill stand together after a meeting in Havana in 2016

He made the appeal more explicit in an afternoon outdoor Mass for Kazakhstan's tiny Catholic community, in which he asked for prayers for 'beloved Ukraine.

He made the appeal more explicit in an afternoon outdoor Mass for Kazakhstan's tiny Catholic community, in which he asked for prayers for 'beloved Ukraine.

He made the appeal more explicit in an afternoon outdoor Mass for Kazakhstan’s tiny Catholic community, in which he asked for prayers for ‘beloved Ukraine.

Pope Francis leads a holy mass in the Expo Grounds in Nur-Sultan on Wednesday

Pope Francis leads a holy mass in the Expo Grounds in Nur-Sultan on Wednesday

Pope Francis leads a holy mass in the Expo Grounds in Nur-Sultan on Wednesday 

'How many deaths will it still take before conflict yields to dialogue for the good of people, nations and all humanity?' he asked. 'The one solution is peace and the only way to arrive at peace is through dialogue.'

'How many deaths will it still take before conflict yields to dialogue for the good of people, nations and all humanity?' he asked. 'The one solution is peace and the only way to arrive at peace is through dialogue.'

‘How many deaths will it still take before conflict yields to dialogue for the good of people, nations and all humanity?’ he asked. ‘The one solution is peace and the only way to arrive at peace is through dialogue.’

He made the appeal more explicit in an afternoon outdoor Mass for Kazakhstan’s tiny Catholic community, in which he asked for prayers for ‘beloved Ukraine.’

‘How many deaths will it still take before conflict yields to dialogue for the good of people, nations and all humanity?’ he asked. ‘The one solution is peace and the only way to arrive at peace is through dialogue.’

Kirill has given enthusiastic backing to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which the patriarch views as a bulwark against a West he calls decadent. 

Kirill sent a message to the congress read aloud by Anthony. In it, the Russian patriarch didn’t refer to the war but in general to problems over the past two decades caused by ‘attempts to build a world without relying on moral values.’

The Russian patriarch has blasted the West’s secular mentality and claimed the seeds of the Ukraine conflict were sown by foreign threats to Russia’s borders.

He has depicted the conflict as a struggle against a foreign liberal establishment purportedly demanding countries hold ‘gay parades’ as the price of admission to a world of excess consumption and freedom.

‘These attempts have led not only to the loss of the concept of justice in international relations, but also to brutal confrontation, military conflicts, the spread of terrorism and extremism in different parts of the world,’ Kirill said in his message.

Suggesting he felt Russia was the victim of a smear campaign, he denounced the spread of misinformation and the ‘distortion of historical facts’ and ‘manipulation of mass consciousness’ to spread messages of ‘hatred towards entire peoples, cultures and religions.’

Pope Francis also expressed concern over the flare up in the South Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Pictured: The pope at the Holy Mass in Kazakhstan on Wednesday

Pope Francis also expressed concern over the flare up in the South Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Pictured: The pope at the Holy Mass in Kazakhstan on Wednesday

Pope Francis also expressed concern over the flare up in the South Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Pictured: The pope at the Holy Mass in Kazakhstan on Wednesday

Pope Francis arrives for Holy Mass on the Expo grounds in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan on Monday

Pope Francis arrives for Holy Mass on the Expo grounds in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan on Monday

Pope Francis arrives for Holy Mass on the Expo grounds in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan on Monday 

About 70 per cent of Kazakhs are Muslim and about 26 per cent Orthodox Christians. There are only about 125,000 Catholics among the 19 million population of the vast Central Asian country.

Pope Francis also expressed concern over the flare up in the South Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

Kirill’s stance on Ukraine has caused a rift with the Vatican and unleashed an internal rebellion that has led to the severing of ties by some local Orthodox Churches with the Russian Orthodox Church. 

Metropolitan Anthony told reporters his meeting with the pope was ‘very cordial’ but said Francis’ ‘altar boy’ remark about Kirill was ‘not helpful for the unity of Christians’ and that it surprised the Russian Orthodox Church.

Anthony said the pope told him he wanted to have a second meeting with Kirill. The first was in Cuba in 2016.

Francis also said that, while violence in God’s name was never justified, the ‘viruses’ of hate and terrorism would not be eradicated without first wiping out injustice and poverty.

He said religious freedom was essential for peaceful coexistence in any society and no creed had a right to coerce others to convert.

A field is covered with craters left by the shelling close to Izium, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on Tuesday. Ukrainian troops piled pressure on retreating Russian forces Tuesday, pressing deeper into occupied territory and sending more Kremlin troops fleeing ahead of the counteroffensive that has inflicted a stunning blow on Moscow's military prestige

A field is covered with craters left by the shelling close to Izium, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on Tuesday. Ukrainian troops piled pressure on retreating Russian forces Tuesday, pressing deeper into occupied territory and sending more Kremlin troops fleeing ahead of the counteroffensive that has inflicted a stunning blow on Moscow's military prestige

A field is covered with craters left by the shelling close to Izium, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on Tuesday. Ukrainian troops piled pressure on retreating Russian forces Tuesday, pressing deeper into occupied territory and sending more Kremlin troops fleeing ahead of the counteroffensive that has inflicted a stunning blow on Moscow’s military prestige

Residential buildings partially destroyed by a Russian missile attack in the center of Kharkiv, Ukraine on Tuesday

Residential buildings partially destroyed by a Russian missile attack in the center of Kharkiv, Ukraine on Tuesday

Residential buildings partially destroyed by a Russian missile attack in the center of Kharkiv, Ukraine on Tuesday 

Francis, who wrote a major document in 2015 on the need to protect the environment, said religious leaders had to be in the front line in bringing attention to the dangers of climate change and extreme weather, particularly its effects on society’s poor and vulnerable.

In addition to the Russian Orthodox delegation, the religious leaders included Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni learning in Cairo, who warmly greeted Francis with a kiss on the cheek when the pope arrived in a wheelchair.

Al-Tayeb used his speech to the conference to complain that traditional religions had been replaced by a culture of lust and gay marriage. ‘This is not acceptable, not even for animals and beasts, let alone for people with pure hearts and sound minds,’ he said.

The Right Rev. Jo Bailey Wells, the Anglican bishop of Dorking and one of only a half dozen women heading delegations, lamented that women represent half the world’s population but are hardly represented in religious leadership.

‘My expectation is it will be a challenge to those present to empower women in the family context and in public society,’ she told reporters.

Before Kirill bowed out, there had been speculation that Francis could meet with Kirill on the sidelines of the congress. The two met for the first time in 2016 in Cuba – the first-ever meeting of a pope and Russian patriarch – and spoke by videoconference in the early weeks of the war.

Francis afterward publicly criticized Kirill’s justification of Russia’s invasion and warned that he mustn’t become ‘Putin’s altar boy.’

Speaking to reporters after he met with Francis, Anthony said Francis’ ‘altar boy’ comment didn’t go over well in Moscow. ‘It wasn’t expected and clearly it’s not useful for the unity of Christians,’ he said. ‘It was a surprise. But we know we have to move on.’

He said a Kirill-Francis meeting is still possible, but insisted it had to be well-prepared ahead of time and must produce a concrete joint statement, as was issued after the Havana meeting.

In addition to the meeting with Anthony, Francis also was meeting with al-Tayeb, the head of Russia’s religious council of Muslims and other Orthodox, Jewish, Lutheran and Muslim leaders.

Another visitor in Kazakhstan on Wednesday was apparently not on Francis’ agenda. Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Nur-Sultan on his first state visit outside China since early in the coronavirus pandemic. 

Vatican and Kazakh officials said they didn’t expect Xi would meet with the pope during his brief visit to a key economic and political ally in the region.

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