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Yura Nechyporenko, 15, hugs his uncle Andriy Nechyporenko above the grave of his father Ruslan Nechyporenko at a cemetery in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 21, 2022. The teen survived an attempted killing by Russian soldiers while his father was killed. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)Yura Nechyporenko, 15, hugs his uncle Andriy Nechyporenko above the grave of his father Ruslan Nechyporenko at a cemetery in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 21, 2022. The teen survived an attempted killing by Russian soldiers while his father was killed. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)  

“Why would you go into a war zone?” “Isn’t this the responsibility of political and military leaders?” “What can spiritual power do?”

These were some of the questions we faced before our multinational, interfaith and just peace delegation went to Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 24 and 25. We were responding to an appeal to the world’s spiritual leaders by the city’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, “to proudly assume the responsibility of their religions for peace” and to visit Kyiv “to show their solidarity with the Ukrainian people.”

Seventeen religious leaders representing Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith traditions made up our delegation, with six of us from the United States. We prayed, provided pastoral accompaniment and distributed humanitarian aid; we also met with local peacebuilders, religious leaders and political leaders. Our deeper purpose was to help create the conditions for protecting civilians, reducing violence, accelerating an end to the war and reinforcing the ways of just peace.

91-year-old Maia told us that she had lost her entire family in her youth during World War II but added, “I have never seen such cruelty as in this war.”

Our delegation saw the devastation of war firsthand in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv that was assaulted by Russian forces for a month before being retaken by the Ukrainian army in early April. Bombed houses were everywhere, and some 3,000 of the town’s residents were now homeless. At a Caritas resettlement site for 100 residents in an old summer camp, we met 91-year-old Maia. She told us that she had lost her entire family in her youth during World War II but added, “I have never seen such cruelty as in this war.” After hearing from the camp’s residents about their struggles and confusion, Jo Wells, an Anglican bishop from England, picked up a pine cone from the ground. She lifted it up and said that through this pine cone, she would remember the residents and their presence would be with her. This was one of many moments of transformative, eucharistic love during our visit.

Russian forces also destroyed Irpin’s House of Culture, an arts center that still displayed posters of concerts and children’s events from happier times. Large parts of the roof were gone, with metal rods hanging down and nearly touching the rubble on the floor. Seeing the burnt-out frame of a grand piano, we felt the immense weight of darkness, destruction and violence. Some of us felt drawn to sing together, and we formed a circle. As we prayed extemporaneously, tears came. The power of destruction and violence was being challenged by the power of life-giving compassion, of Jesus’ resurrection that overcomes death.

The interfaith peace delegation meets with residents of Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of Eli McCarthy)

In Kyiv, we heard from local peacebuilders about their efforts and struggles. A woman named Tetyana works with the League of Mediators of Ukraine, an organization that helps solve family disputes, and she talked about the strain on families in Ukraine and how it has led to domestic violence and divorce. Tetyana said her mediation work with families showed how powerful empathy can be and how it can be broadened as a way to shift the dynamics of war. Other peacemakers shared the difficulty of responding effectively to brutality. A nonviolence activist named Oelena said she was so deeply shaken after taking testimony from women raped by Russian soldiers that she was unable to work for two days, asking herself, “How do we stop such evil actions?”

Ukrainian faith leaders as well as government officials told us that this war, like many other wars, is as much spiritual and ideological as it is a conflict over land and resources. “We are to be defeated and re-educated as part of ‘Russky Mir,’” Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said of Ukrainians. (He was referring to “Russian World,” an ultranationalist Russian view that legitimizes violence in a supposed battle with Western immorality and globalization.) Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, the apostolic nuncio to Ukraine, told us that while he is overwhelmed by the logistics of everyday life (“I spend most of my time searching for diesel fuel”), he is more concerned about the spiritual battle here. “If we are unified,” he said, “Satan will be unable to get in.”

Ukrainian faith leaders as well as government officials told us that this war, like many other wars, is as much spiritual and ideological as it is a conflict over land and resources.

We were reminded that disinformation, distortions and lies are common currency in war-making. As one example, Valentyn Mondryivskyi, Kyiv’s deputy mayor, expressed exasperation at having to counter lies that Russian media are telling about Ukraine; he pleaded with the just peace delegation to consider what we saw on the ground, not what the Russian government wants the world to believe: “Tell what you experienced. We are normal people.”

Unity, solidarity, compassion, humanization and truth will all be essential tools in establishing a just peace in Ukraine; people of faith can help to strengthen them. Our delegation was trying to do this through creative nonviolent action, with reverence for dignity and life as well as the promotion of efforts to avoid dehumanization and other types of violence. We wanted to stir moral imagination about how to engage conflict constructively and break dynamics of violence.

We wanted to stir moral imagination about how to engage conflict constructively and break dynamics of violence.

A key goal was to diminish sources of power that enable injustice and war, as well as building up sources of power for a just peace. Our focus included intangible sources of power like the “Russian World” ideology, as well as language (which can be humanizing or dehumanizing), dominant narratives, symbols, religious praxis and social habits. But we also engaged with material sources of power such as food distribution, medical care and communication structures. The delegation also challenged the authority and legitimacy of the unjust regime in Russia enacting the aggression in Ukraine.

Our delegation drew inspiration from past faith leaders’ more courageous initiatives. St. Francis of Assisi, for example, traveled to Egypt in 1219 and crossed enemy lines in an attempt to end a brutal war (one of the Crusades). He took a spiritual approach to what others saw as a military problem and ignored their warnings that his effort to meet the Muslim Sultan was dangerous and foolish. While the war did not end immediately, Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kamil appear to have been changed by their encounter; this might well have accelerated an end to the war, as the Sultan humanized his approach and engaged in more consistent attempts to negotiate peace.

What can faith leaders do in the face of a brutal war? We can (and did) pray, and we can be “doers of the word and not hearers only” (Jas 1:22). We can express solidarity through accompaniment and compassion, through humanitarian aid and service. In the international public narrative, we can work to establish a terrain of truth on which a just peace can be built.

Through this multinational, interfaith just peace delegation, we hope to encourage a wave of subsequent delegations, increases in humanitarian aid and peacebuilding, the creation of consistent humanitarian corridors, a focus on dialogue and diplomacy, and new ways for the human community to persist in trying to save lives and end the killing in Ukraine.

[Read next: “What critics of Pope Francis’ NATO comments don’t understand about Vatican diplomacy”]

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