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Pope: Holy See ready to facilitate exchange of Russian and Ukrainian prisoners of war

Pope Francis renews his appeal for an exchange of Russian and Ukrainian prisoners of war, assuring the Holy See’s readiness to facilitate efforts in this regard.

By Linda Bordoni

Pope Francis has again appealed for a “general exchange of all prisoners between Russia and Ukraine.”

Speaking during the Regina Caeli on Ascension Sunday, the Pope noted that his appeal falls on the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Risen Lord “who wants us to be free, and who sets us free.”

He went on to assure all parties involved that the Holy See remains ready to facilitate every effort in this regard, especially for those who are seriously wounded and sick.”

And he renewed his constant appeal for prayers for peace: “Let us continue to pray for peace, in Ukraine, in Palestine, in Israel, in Myanmar… let us pray for peace!” he said.

Past prisoner exchanges

So far, Russia and Ukraine have conducted over 50 prisoner exchanges since the beginning of the war, involving several thousand prisoners whom both sides have released.

Last January, Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky mentioned that some 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been liberated following these agreements.

Papal appeals

As Pope Francis himself said, he has raised an appeal to this effect on many and various occasions.

During his “Urbi et Orbi” address this Easter, on March 31st: ” My thoughts go especially to the victims of the many conflicts worldwide, beginning with those in Israel and Palestine, and in Ukraine. May the risen Christ open a path of peace for the war-torn peoples of those regions.  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”!

Just last month during his General Audience on April 17th, he said: ” And our thoughts, at this moment, [the thoughts] of all of us, go to the peoples at war. Let us think of the Holy Land, of Palestine, of Israel. We think of Ukraine, martyred Ukraine. Let us think of the prisoners of war… May the Lord move wills so they may all be freed. And speaking of prisoners, those who are tortured come to mind. The torture of prisoners is a horrible thing. It is not human. Let us think of so many kinds of torture that wound the dignity of the person, and of so many tortured people… May the Lord help everyone and bless everyone.”

A constant commitment

And during a meeting with Jesuits in September 2022 when he travelled to Kazakhstan, the Holy Father spoke about his commitment towards the liberation of prisoners saying: “Some Ukrainian envoys came to me. Among them, the vice-rector of the Catholic University of Ukraine, accompanied by the advisor for religious affairs of the President, an evangelical. We talked, discussed. A military leader who deals with prisoner exchanges also came, always with the religious advisor of President Zelensky. This time they brought me a list of over 300 prisoners. They asked me to do something to facilitate an exchange. I immediately called the Russian ambassador to see if something could be done, if a prisoner exchange could be expedited.”

Pope Francis has also entrusted Cardinal Matteo Zuppi with undertaking humanitarian missions to war-torn nations and tasked him, amongst other responsibilities, with focusing on the exchange of prisoners and the repatriation of Ukrainian children from Russia.

Bull of Indiction of the Jubilee

The just-proclaimed Bull of Indiction of the 2025 Jubilee contains an urgent call to provide hope to those who live in difficult conditions: “During the Holy Year, we are called to be tangible signs of hope for those of our brothers and sisters who experience hardships of any kind. I think of prisoners who, deprived of their freedom, daily feel the harshness of detention and its restrictions, lack of affection and, in more than a few cases, lack of respect for their persons. I propose that in this Jubilee Year governments undertake initiatives aimed at restoring hope; forms of amnesty or pardon (…) In every part of the world, believers, and their Pastors in particular, should be one in demanding dignified conditions for those in prison, respect for their human rights…“

Appeal of the Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church

In his message for Easter according to the Julian calendar, celebrated on 5 May, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, reiterated the Pope’s appeal: “The words of Pope Francis regarding the exchange of all for all, expressed during the Latin rite Easter, have left a deep mark in the hearts of Christians both in Ukraine and in Russia. Today, more than ever, we not only want to hear the words and the appeal of Pope Francis, but we want his words on the ‘all for all’ exchange to become for us an imperative, a call to concrete actions.”

In particular, the Major Archbishop of Kyiv-Galicia requested the release of three categories of prisoners of war: military women, healthcare workers, and also captured priests. He recalled that currently about eight thousand military personnel and around 1,600 Ukrainian civilians are detained in Russia.

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