The head of Ukraine’s Catholic Church has deplored last weekend’s Russian attack on the strategic port of Odessa, just a day after a United Nations-brokered deal to resume grain exports, as warnings grew of worsening humanitarian conditions and a possible escalation in the war.
“This was the most cynical act – the day after signing an agreement to unblock the ports, the Russians struck the port of Odessa with rockets, seeking to hit Ukrainian grain warehouses,” said Major Archbishop Svietoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych.
Russia insisted the strikes were against military targets and did not break the agreement.
The archbishop, whose Church combines the eastern rite with loyalty to Rome, was reacting to Saturday's missile attacks, July 23, on the Black Sea port of Odessa, currently the main export route for more than 20 million tons of trapped Ukrainian grain.
In a national message, he said the strikes had been accompanied by other attacks around Kherson, Donetsk, Sumy and Kharkiv, as well as on Mykolaiv, where efforts were continuing to rescue civilians trapped under the rubble of destroyed buildings.
Meanwhile, another Catholic bishop said humanitarian needs were multiplying, among people stripped of homes and livelihoods, adding that he feared mass hunger next winter.
“Since 2014, Pope Francis has often talked about war in Ukraine becoming a flashpoint for a larger-scale conflict – when I look at the situation on the front in our country's east, I really think the Russians could decide to do some terrible thing,” Bishop Jan Sobilo of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia has told Vatican Radio.
“Russia is now like a wounded animal that injured itself, stuck in the swamp of a war it unleashed itself and unable to come out while saving face. I think much prayer is needed that the Russian leadership does not unleash a nuclear war.”
Ukraine's military command said two Russian Kalibr missiles had struck Odessa, with two others shot down before reaching their targets, despite Moscow's pledge last Friday in Istanbul not to target Ukrainian ports during the transit of grain shipments.
The apparent violation of the 120-day deal, which was welcomed as a “beacon of hope” for developing countries facing famine by the UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, was deplored by the European Union. However, Ukrainian officials said they still hoped the first grain shipments could leave Odessa and other ports “within days” if security arrangements were kept in place.
During his flight to Canada on Sunday, the Pope told journalists he still hoped to visit Ukraine in the near future. However, the president of Ukraine's Latin Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki, told Vatican Radio conditions were deteriorating across the country, and said recent days had seen a growing influx of orphaned children and “maimed people, often in wheelchairs” from embattled eastern Ukraine seeking shelter at his western Lviv see.
More than 5.8 million Ukrainian refugees are dispersed across Europe, mostly under national protection schemes, according to mid-July data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, with seven million more displaced inside the country.