Religion must never be used to justify the “evil” of war, Pope Francis told the Russian Orthodox hierarchy and other faith leaders on Wednesday.
His audience at a conference in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan included 80 imams, patriarchs, rabbis and muftis alongside a representative of Patriarch Kirill, who has given his blessing to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and was not present at the event.
Francis didn’t mention Russia or Ukraine in his remarks. But he insisted that faith leaders themselves must take the lead in promoting a culture of peace.
“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 arms.
“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!”
Patriarch Kirill -- the head of the Russian Orthodox Church -- sent a message to the congress that was read out by Metropolitan Anthony, in charge of foreign relations at the church. In it, Kirill didn't refer to the war but in general to problems over the past two decades caused by “attempts to build a world without relying on moral values”.
The Russian patriarch has condemned the West's secular, liberal mentality and claimed the seeds of the Ukraine conflict were sown by foreign threats to Russia's borders.
“These attempts have led not only to the loss of the concept of justice in international relations but also to brutal confrontation, military conflicts, the spread of terrorism and extremism in different parts of the world,” Kirill said in his message.
Suggesting he felt Russia was the victim of a smear campaign, he denounced the spread of misinformation and the “distortion of historical facts” and “manipulation of mass consciousness” to spread messages of “hatred towards entire peoples, cultures and religions”.
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imam of Al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni learning in Cairo, who used his speech to complain that traditional religion had been replaced by “selfishness, worship of pleasure and lust, and sexual liberation” that includes gay marriage and polygamy.
The Right Rev. Jo Bailey Wells, the Anglican bishop of Dorking and one of only a half dozen women heading delegations, lamented that women represent half the world’s population but are hardly represented in religious leadership.
“My expectation is it will be a challenge to those present to empower women in the family context and in public society,” she told reporters afterwards.
Before Kirill cancelled, 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.