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Religion cannot justify the ‘evil’ of war, Pope Francis says

Against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Francis challenged faith leaders at a conference in Kazakhstan to unite in promoting peace.
“May we never justify violence,” Pope Francis told a meeting of religious leaders in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, on Wednesday.  Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan — Pope Francis told the Russian Orthodox hierarchy and other faith leaders Wednesday that religion must never be used to justify the “evil” of war and that God must never “be held hostage to the human thirst for power.”

Against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Francis opened an interfaith conference in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan by challenging delegations to unite in condemning war. He cited a Kazakh poet in warning that “he who permits evil and does not oppose it cannot be regarded as a true believer. At best he is a half-hearted believer.”

In the audience of the 80 imams, patriarchs, rabbis and muftis was Metropolitan Anthony, in charge of foreign relations for the Russian Orthodox Church, which has firmly backed Russia’s invasion. His boss, Patriarch Kirill, was supposed to have participated in the congress but canceled last month.

Kirill has justified 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.

Francis didn’t mention Russia or Ukraine in his remarks, which alongside those of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev opened the gathering of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Taoist and other faith groups aimed at promoting interreligious dialogue and fraternity as a force for peace in the world.

But speaking from Russia’s southern neighbor as the seven-month war rages on, Francis told the faith leaders that they themselves needed to take the lead in promoting a culture of peace, saying it was 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 recourse to arms.

Francis is welcomed by Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Nur-Sultan on Wednesday.Andrew Medichini / AP

“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!”

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.

Francis and al-Tayeb signed a joint Christian-Muslim document promoting human fraternity as a force for peace in 2019 — a document that Tokayev cited in his own speech opening the congress. Al-Tayeb was later given a special award by the Kazakh organizers for his interfaith work.

Before Kirill bowed out, there had been speculation that Francis could meet with Kirill on the sidelines of the congress after both confirmed their presence earlier this year. 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 Ukraine’s invasion and warned that he mustn’t become “Putin’s altar boy.”

While Francis wouldn’t meet with Kirill while in Kazakhstan, he was due to meet on the sidelines of the conference with Anthony, al-Tayeb, the head of Russia’s religious council of Muslims, Mufti Sheikh Ravil Gaynutdin, as well as other Orthodox, Jewish, Lutheran and Muslim leaders.

Another visitor in Kazakhstan on Wednesday was apparently not on Francis’ agenda: Chinese President Xi Jinping was heading to Nur-Sultan on his first state visit outside China since the coronavirus pandemic. Neither Vatican nor Kazakh officials expected Xi would meet with the pope during his brief visit to a key economic and political ally in the region.