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No sign of POW deal as Ukrainians, Russians mark Easter

The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church highlighted the plight of Ukrainians in Russian captivity as he led Easter celebrations Sunday.

Ukrainian Greek Catholic leader Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk celebrates the Easter Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 5, 2024. Screenshot from @ugcctv YouTube channel.

Celebrating the Easter Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at Kyiv’s Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ May 5, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk said he wanted to address the words “Christ is risen” to Ukrainians in Russian-occupied territories.

“Do not be afraid of the occupiers, for Christ is risen! We especially hold in our hearts all those suffering in Russian captivity and prisons,” he said.

Shevchuk has previously said that around 8,000 Ukrainian servicemen and 1,600 civilians are currently held by Russia, “enduring hellish conditions.”


Both Ukraine and Russia are predominantly Eastern Orthodox Christian countries with Catholic minorities. Ukraine-based members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church — the largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome — celebrate Easter on the same day as Eastern Orthodox Christians, in line with the Julian calendar.

But as Ukrainians and Russians celebrated Easter May 5, there was no sign of a major prisoner-of-war exchange advocated by Catholic leaders.

Hopes of a prisoner swap were raised March 31, when Pope Francis called for “a general exchange of all prisoners between Russia and Ukraine: all for the sake of all” in his Easter “Urbi et Orbi” message.

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

Vatican peace envoy Cardinal Matteo Zuppi and Ukrainian presidential adviser Andriy Yermak discussed the prospect of a prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia in an April 30 phone conversation.

Zuppi, the president of the Italian bishops’ conference, traveled to Kyiv, Moscow, Washington, and Beijing in 2023, to promote humanitarian gestures, including the return of an estimated 20,000 Ukrainian children forcibly transferred to Russia following the full-scale invasion.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians, has also called for a new prisoner swap.

He endorsed an “all for all” prisoner exchange as he presided May 5 at the Divine Liturgy of the Resurrection in the courtyard of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey.

He expressed support for the “Nash Vyhod – Our Exodus” initiative, which advocates for a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia.

The Ecumenical Patriarch said that a prisoner swap “on the sacred occasion of Easter” would be “a very specific expression of the power of the Resurrection.”

Metropolitan Epiphanius, the primate of the autonomous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) echoed his appeal May 6.

In Moscow, Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill presided at the Easter liturgy at Christ the Savior Cathedral, in the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In a message marking Easter, Putin thanked Patriarch Kirill for “productive cooperation at this difficult time.”

The patriarch recently stirred controversy when the XXV World Russian People’s Council, a body of which he is chairman, issued a decree describing Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine as a “holy war.”

Members of the World Council of Churches said that the decree, addressed to Russia’s legislative and executive authorities, raised “grave concerns.” 

In a May 2 address, Major Archbishop Shevchuk accused the Russian Orthodox Church of taking over the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of St. Michael the Archangel in a Russian-occupied area in southern Ukraine.

“In the village of Oleksandrivka, Skadovsk district, Kherson region, during Holy Week, our church was not only seized, but they also committed a sacrilege by rededicating it and affiliating it with the Russian Orthodox Church,” he said.

Patriarch Kirill, meanwhile, has repeatedly accused Ukrainian authorities of pressurizing the Moscow-aligned Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC-MP).

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered his Easter greetings from Kyiv’s St. Sophia Cathedral.

“May God grant eternal rest to all those who gave their lives for Ukraine and everlasting peace to their descendants, to all our children and grandchildren, and to all our future generations,” he said in the May 5 message.

“They have the sacred right to know what a peaceful Easter in a peaceful Ukraine is.”

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