The meeting in Rome follows strong criticism from Ukrainians of Francis's portrayal of the conflict

Ukrainian Catholic bishops have come to Rome to tell Pope Francis the truth” about the war in their country after complaints by some Ukranians that the Holy See was being influenced by Russian propaganda.

The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church said the country was not in a civil war but facing “the direct aggression of our neighbour”.

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, major archbishop of Kiev-Halych, said: “We are here to convey the truth to the Holy Father about the situation of Ukraine. This is our whole proposal of the visit. And the truth is that we, the Ukrainian people, are the victims.”

The Ukrainian Catholic bishops were expected to meet the Pope in a private audience today, as part of their six-day ad limina visit to report on the status of their dioceses.

“Our duty is to convey the truth, not to force somebody to change their mind,” the archbishop said about the upcoming audience with the Pope.

The archbishop was responding to questions put to him by Catholic News Service regarding Pope Francis’s comments on Ukraine at his February 4 general audience.

Critics said the Pope’s choice of words suggested the Holy See views the crisis in eastern Ukraine as a civil war. They also accused the Holy See of using rhetoric in line with the Russian position on the conflict for the sake of keeping positive ecumenical relations with the Orthodox Church.

Noting “the differing interpretations of the Pope’s words”, the Vatican press office issued a statement saying that the Pope was “following attentively” the situation in Ukraine and had always addressed “all interested parties” when speaking about the conflict.

However, after a liturgy yesterday to pray for peace in Ukraine, Archbishop Shevchuk spoke plainly with journalists at the Basilica of St Mary Major, saying the situation in his country can be described “in one word: a war.”

“But we have to say that we do not have a civil war in Ukraine,” he continued. “We have an aggression of a foreign country against the Ukrainian citizens and the Ukrainian state.”

With the violence ongoing, despite the peace agreement signed last year in Minsk, Belarus, “the whole world stopped to talk about the civil war in Ukraine, and now everybody knows that we are under the direct aggression of our neighbor country,” the archbishop said.

In addition to the fighting, he said the country’s pastors are concerned about the more than 2 million refugees, among them 140,000 children. He said more than 6,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed to date.

“We are witnessing the biggest humanitarian catastrophe in Eastern Europe, after the end of the Second World War,” he said.

Ukrainians have responded generously to the crisis; about 80 per cent of the population is involved in a parish-based volunteer movement, he reported.

Still, there is the need for assistance, he said, launching an appeal to the international community for “help to stop the aggression” and to organize humanitarian aid.

“The truth is that we, the Ukrainian people, are the victims and, according to the Holy Scripture, God is always with those who suffer unjustly,” he said. “God is always with the victims. He himself became a victim with the offering on the cross.”

And for this reason, he continued, the expectation is that the Christian community worldwide “will be united in this solidarity with Ukraine, especially in this difficult period of our history”.

Hundreds of Ukrainian nationals, living in Rome, packed St Mary Major for yesterday’s liturgy to pray for peace in Ukraine, with dozens lining the aisles or sitting on the steps of the side chapels. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, was also in attendance.

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