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UKRAINE

Thousands join Pope for Rome Good Friday service with Ukraine in mind

Thousands of faithful attended the "Way of the Cross" prayer service, presided over by Pope Francis at Rome's Colosseum on Friday, a ceremony overtaken by the war in Ukraine.

A family of migrants hold the cross near Pope Francis
A family of migrants hold the cross near Pope Francis (Front L) during the 14th and last Station of the Cross, as part of the Way of The Cross presided over by the Pope on Good Friday, April 15, 2022 in Rome. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP)

It was the first time the traditional event on Good Friday, which marks the day Jesus Christ died on the cross in the Christian calendar, was held at the Roman monument since 2019, due to the Covid pandemic.

It also comes two days before Easter, Christianity’s most important holiday.

The pope, who has repeatedly condemned the conflict in Ukraine, and has called for an Easter ceasefire, prayed that the “adversaries shake hands” and “taste mutual forgiveness”.

“Disarm the raised hand of brother against brother,” he said.

“I have lived in Rome for more than 30 years but today it seemed very important to come,” Stefania Cutolo, a 52-year-old Italian teacher, told AFP as a choir rehearsed for the evening event.

“The message tonight, after two years of closure due to the pandemic, is doubly important. In this context where nationalism is returning to Europe, we must act,” she added.

Shortly after 9pm (1900 GMT), in front of 10,000 faithful, the Pontiff opened this highlight of Holy Week.

Organised since 1964 in the sumptuously illuminated Roman amphitheatre, the Way of the Cross event was held in Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican for the last two years, with very low attendances amid the health crisis.

“We meet the whole world here, we hear all languages. It’s marvellous,” enthused Marie-Agnes Bethouart, 71, who arrived at Friday’s event with her husband and two grandsons.

Among the crowd, a yellow and blue flag stood out among the candles. They are the colours of Ukraine.

A Ukrainian and a Russian women hold the cross together at the Stations of the Cross service in Rome

Ukrainian nurse Irina (L), who works at the Palliative Care Centre “Together for the cure” of the Opus Dei University Polyclinic Foundation, and Russian nurse Albina (R), a third-year student in the nursing course at the University Campus Bio-Medico in Rome, hold the cross on Good Friday, April 15, 2022 in Rome. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP)

Among the families who were entrusted with carrying the crucifix at each of the 14 stations of the cross were two women, one Russian and one Ukrainian, who are life-long friends.

The women carried the cross during one portion of the Way of the Cross, the traditional procession that commemorates the 14 stations of Jesus’ suffering and death, from his condemnation to his burial.

‘Inappropriate’
But the Vatican’s initiative, intended as a gesture of reconciliation in the face of the war that began February 24, was not well received by Ukrainian officials.

On Tuesday, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Bishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, denounced an “inappropriate, premature and ambiguous idea, which does not take into account the context of Russia’s military
aggression”.

For his part, the Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See said he “shared the general concern”.

In a sign of the sensitivity of the issue, the Ukrainian media boycotted the broadcast of the ceremony, while the Vatican had added commentary in Ukrainian and Russian for the broadcast.

In the crowd at the event, Anastasia Goncharova, an 18-year-old tourist from Kyiv, said “I don’t think it’s a really good idea because we are no longer brother nations. They are killing our children, they are raping our
children, stealing our house. It’s disgusting”

In the end the two Russian and Ukrainian friends did carry the crucifix together.

A contemplative silence replaced an original text for the occasion, which was intended to deal more specifically with the war in Ukraine.

Most of those attending welcomed the Vatican’s Russia-Ukraine initiative.

“It is the cross, and therefore the pain of these two peoples, but also hope, because we believe that after the war there will be peace. It is very beautiful,” said Bethouart.

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POLITICS

Italy’s government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

Italy's new government issued a decree on Thursday to continue sending weapons to Ukraine through 2023, continuing the previous administration's policy of support to Kyiv.

Italy's government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

The decree extends to December 31, 2023 an existing authorisation for “the transfer of military means, materials and equipment to the government authorities of Ukraine,” according to a government statement.

Since taking office in October, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has repeatedly voiced her support for Kyiv while underlying the importance of the Atlantic alliance.

In her first speech to parliament, the leader of the Brothers of Italy party pledged to “continue to be a reliable partner of NATO in supporting Ukraine.”

Her predecessor Mario Draghi was a staunch supporter of Kyiv, but the issue of sending arms to Ukraine split the biggest party in parliament during his coalition government, the Five Star Movement.

That friction led to the early elections that brought Meloni to power.

Parliament now has 60 days to vote the decree into law.

READ ALSO: Outcry in Italy after Berlusconi defends Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Despite Meloni’s efforts to reassure her Western allies of Italy’s support for the EU’s and NATO’s Ukraine strategy, including sanctions on Russia, the close ties to Russia of her two coalition partners have come under scrutiny.

Both Matteo Salvini of the League party and former premier Silvio Berlusconi, who leads Forza Italia, have long enjoyed warm relations with Russia.

In October, an audio tape of Berlusconi was leaked to the media in which the former premier described how he had received a birthday present of vodka from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the tape, he also expressed concerns about sending weapons and cash to Kyiv and appeared to blame the war on Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Berlusconi later issued a statement saying his personal position on Ukraine “does not deviate” from that of Italy and the EU.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Salvini, too, has come under fire for his relations with Moscow, including a report that he dined with Russia’s ambassador to Rome just days after that country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Salvini, who has criticised EU sanctions as ineffective, has long admired Putin, even wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Russian leader’s face.

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