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Catholic leaders press for Orthodox Easter Ukraine war prisoner swap

Catholic leaders are pushing for a major exchange of Ukrainian and Russian prisoners of war ahead of Orthodox Easter this Sunday.

An icon is retrieved from the rubble of a residential building in Zaporizhzhia, southeast Ukraine, after Russian shelling on Oct. 6, 2022. via Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0).

Pope Francis launched the push March 31, when he called in his Easter “Urbi et Orbi” message for “a general exchange of all prisoners between Russia and Ukraine: all for the sake of all.” 


Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin expressed cautious optimism about the prospects of a deal in an interview published April 27.

“I can’t give specifics, but from what I have heard there has already been movement in this direction,” he said. “And so the pope’s appeal has been taken up and acted upon.”

Parolin said the progress on a new exchange was “a positive sign,” showing the effectiveness of Vatican peace envoy Cardinal Matteo Zuppi’s 2023 visits to Kyiv, Moscow, Washington, and Beijing.

He expressed hopes that humanitarian agreements on the return of prisoners and children would “create the conditions to arrive at negotiations and, we hope, the conclusion of the war.”

In an April 30 phone conversation, Ukrainian presidential adviser Andriy Yermak and Vatican peace envoy Cardinal Matteo Zuppi discussed a potential release of prisoners of war ahead of Orthodox Easter on May 5. 

Both Ukraine and Russia are majority Eastern Orthodox countries, with Catholic minorities. More than 100 Ukrainian prisoners of war were freed in April 2023, in what Yermak described at the time as a “great Easter exchange.”

An official summary of the phone call said that Ukraine was focused on securing the return of an estimated 20,000 children deported to Russia following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

“You also continue your work in this direction,” Yermak told Zuppi, the president of Italy’s bishops’ conference. “Thank you. This is a slow process, but still we are moving forward.”

The two men also discussed the release of adult prisoners, including combat medics.

“During the conversation, the parties discussed the ways to speed up this process and to organize the exchange on the eve of Easter,” the statement said.

In his weekly video address, Ukrainian Greek Catholic leader Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk urged decision-makers to heed the pope’s appeal for an “all for all” prisoner exchange.

He said he hoped that a deal would especially benefit three categories of prisoners: women, medical workers, and clergy.

“Let’s unite our efforts to secure the release of women from captivity, whether in Ukraine or Russia, so that they can return to their families and homes on Easter,” said Shevchuk.

Members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome, will celebrate Easter May 5, alongside Eastern Orthodox Christians, in accordance with the Julian calendar.

Shevchuk appealed for an “Easter exchange of doctors and nurses who, according to international law, are not combatants.” 

He also called for renewed efforts to free “at least 10” captive Ukrainian clergy. 

He said: “I appeal to the international religious community: can’t the whole world ensure that these 10 clergymen sing ‘Christ is risen’ in their churches this Easter?”

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Shevchuk also addressed members of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leaders have supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

He suggested that the pope’s “all for all” appeal had “deeply resonated in the hearts of ordinary Russians.”

“We understand that Russian Orthodox Christians will venerate and kiss the icon of Christ ‘Descent into Hades’ on Easter,” he said. 

“As Christians, we all worship the Lord who rescues humanity from hell, who takes Adam and Eve out of their tombs. Therefore, let us, Christians, stand on both sides of the front line, holding the hand of Christ, who will lead our brothers and sisters, women, doctors, and clergy out of the hell of captivity.” 

He added: “We are aware that approximately 8,000 Ukrainian servicemen and 1,600 civilians are currently in Russian captivity, enduring hellish conditions. Let’s do everything to ensure that the exchange of ‘all for all’ becomes a reality this Easter, step by step.”

Pope Francis has confirmed publicly his involvement in prisoner exchanges, indicating that he has passed lists drawn up by Ukrainian authorities to Russian officials via the Russian embassy to the Holy See.

The Vatican is not the only third party engaged in prisoner exchange talks with Russia and Ukraine. The United Arab Emirates helped to arrange a swap of 100 prisoners from each side in February. This month, almost 50 children returned home following an agreement organized by Qatar.

Pope Francis called once again for an end to the Ukraine war at his May 1 general audience in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall.

Urging pilgrims to pray for conflict victims, he said: “War always is a defeat, always. We think of the tormented Ukraine that suffers so much.”

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