“Home is not just a word. Home means Ukraine.”

This is how President Zelensky welcomed 90 Ukrainian prisoners of war earlier in the week.

This marks the third prisoner exchange of the year. The swap took place shortly after Ukraine’s Peace Summit earlier this month where around 90 heads of state, senior officials, and international organizations gathered to discuss prisoner exchange, child repatriation, and other humanitarian issues.

The Vatican insisted in the past that it had been working tirelessly on the issue of POWs and child repatriation. It even appointed one of its Cardinals, Matteo Zuppi, to deal with the matter.

Neither President Zelensky nor Russian President Vladimir Putin have publicly identified the Pope or any other religious leader as the reason for any of the exchanges that have taken place so far. On the last few occasions, Zelensky and Putin each expressed gratitude to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for facilitating the process.

Advertisement

Given the focus on humanitarian issues associated with the war, expectations of religious leaders at the summit were high. After all, these questions are their strong suit.

However, the first clue that the summit may not have been the place for highly actionable outcomes by representatives of religion came with the hesitations over Pope Francis’s attendance.

There were considerable efforts undertaken to secure the Pope’s presence at the event but to no avail. Sending Secretary of State Pietro Parolin to Switzerland signaled a lack of enthusiasm on the Vatican’s part.

‘If It Weren’t for Me, There’d Be No NATO’ – Ukraine at War Update for July 10
Other Topics of Interest

‘If It Weren’t for Me, There’d Be No NATO’ – Ukraine at War Update for July 10

Biden announces new air defenses for Ukraine at NATO summit; Bizarrely, Russia chairs UN meeting on its own deadly Kyiv strike; Politico says Great White North is now a big white elephant within NATO.

At the end of May, the Cardinal warned against the Western supply of weapons to Ukraine that could be used on targets in Russia, saying that the step could potentially cause an “escalation” of the situation.

Unlike the Pope, the nominal leader of the Eastern Orthodox Christians, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, did accept the invitation and attended the summit, which put him on a collision course with the Turkish state. Surprisingly, there weren’t any Ukrainian religious representatives present in Bürgenstock.

Advertisement

Comparing plenary speeches

Cardinal Parolin and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew spoke at the plenary session on the second day of the summit. Both speeches were brief and Bartholomew’s was no more than three minutes long. It focused on granting autocephaly in 2019, which was missing the mark completely.

While it was a momentous development for Ukrainians, the granting of autocephaly had very little relation to the central themes of the summit.

It could be argued that this performance was somewhat predictable. After all, Bartholomew burned all bridges with Moscow after the granting of autocephaly, and there was not realistically much he could contribute to these specific issues. As a result, his capacity to assist in humanitarian actions seemed restricted.

However, it is worth recalling that the Ecumenical Patriarchate had a say on prisoner exchange this spring when supporting the idea of exchanging prisoners in the all-for-all format in his Easter address.

He also supported a local (Russian-led) initiative called “Nash Vychod” in its efforts to bring home Russian soldiers. None of these efforts were mentioned in his speech.

Advertisement

In comparison, Cardinal Parolin’s speech echoed the main points of the summit. He told the audience about the importance of these issues to the Pontiff, highlighting some of the challenges on the ground. He spoke about the question of access to POWs and assessment of their medical conditions, a challenge shared with the International Red Cross. Parolin also talked about the issue of child repatriation from Russia.

The Vatican's representative showed a noticeable lack of ambition. There wasn’t any mention of new humanitarian instruments or the sharing of the concrete results of their work.

Russia was not called out as the aggressor state. This was probably a carefully calculated and intentional move meant not to anger Moscow and to keep lines of communication open.

Then there was the political fallout around the final communique, which was supposed to be the crown of the summit. Not everyone present at the summit signed the declaration.

The Holy See was among those who refused to apply its signature, fueling further criticism of its equidistance.

(Non) signing of the communique

The summit co-organizers went to great lengths to ensure that the chosen topics were not controversial and were capable of being agreed upon, including issues like prohibiting the use of food security as a weapon and the non-use of nuclear weapons.

Advertisement

Even though the Vatican is subject to international law, it stayed away from signing the communique, citing its nature as an observer at the summit.

On the other hand, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, despite having the same standing at the summit as an observer, signed the communique after the summit.

Bartholomew's troubles began to unravel because of this. One unintended political consequence of the summit has been the escalation and pressure against the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s participation in Bürgenstock, which might also indicate why his speech underdelivered.

Under mounting pressure from Ankara, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had to withdraw its signature from Ukraine’s Peace Summit communique.

Turkish authorities see Bartholomew’s signature as a potential threat to Turkish sovereignty and a violation of the Treaty of Lausanne from 1923. The reaction from Ankara is puzzling as Bartholomew was included in the list of participants as an observer.

It is possible that the Vatican's non-signature of the document added to the complexities surrounding Bartholomew’s conduct. The mere attendance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate delegation at the summit highlighted the delicate balance of his relationship with the Turkish authorities and the limits of its diplomatic maneuvering on the global stage.

Advertisement

President Zelensky hailed the summit as a success. According to him, preparations are underway for the second and final peace summit, which will end the war. He stated that several countries have already expressed readiness to actively support the initiatives discussed in Switzerland. The Vatican was not among those.

It is indisputable that the Churches can be active contributors to peace efforts, which is why the organizers extended invitations to the two Christian leaders. For a split moment, the Ecumenical Patriarchate even showed leadership by signing the final communique, putting the Vatican under the spotlight.

On the other hand, CardinalParolin was one of the few at the Summit openly pushing to keep communication channels on humanitarian questions between Kyiv and Moscow open. Unfortunately, this is where the impact and involvement of the churches ended.

The two religious leaders stayed in familiar territory. After much political gymnastics, the summit ended with no religious representatives signing the final communique. It showed the limited actorness of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a peacemaker and reaffirmed the Vatican’s policy of restraint and working in the background.

Advertisement

The promise of what could have been, was evident, however, it was not fully embraced or exploited to its full potential.

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

Dr. Andreja Bogdanovski is a Skopje-born freelance writer based in Edinburgh, specializing in Orthodox affairs.

To suggest a correction or clarification, write to us here
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter