Pope Francis is pleading for peace…
The 86-year-old Argentine head of the Catholic Church has issued a renewed plea for peace in Ukraine after attending a screening at the Vatican of Evgeny Afineevsky’s documentary Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.
The screening at the New Synod Hall took place on the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbor, a war that has killed or wounded an estimated 180,000 Russian troops and 100,000 Ukrainian forces. Upwards of 30,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed.
The pope sat next to several Ukrainian women who appear in the film and when the lights came up he led the audience of about 250 people in prayer.
Speaking primarily in Italian, the pontiff asked the Lord to heal humanity from the river of hatred that feeds war: “When God made man, he said to take the earth, to make it grow, make it beautiful. The spirit of war is the opposite: destroy, destroy… Don’t let it grow, destroy everyone. Men, women, children, the elderly, everyone.”
Afineevsky earned an Oscar nomination for 2015’s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom – the film about the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014 that later prompted Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fomenting of armed revolt in Eastern Ukraine.
On Friday night he presented a recut version of his latest documentary, updated with very recent footage from the conflict.
Addressing Pope Francis moments before the screening began, Afineevsky said, “Thank you for showing your solidarity with the Ukrainian people for the nine years of this war and the one-year of the major intervention of Russia and occupation of Ukraine… For me, it’s really important and symbolic to be with you and all of you [the audience] here on the 24th of February, the day we are commemorating this tragic start of the war.”
The director told Deadline to his knowledge it’s the first time any pope has attended a film screening event on the Vatican grounds.
Seated next to the pontiff were Nataliia Nagorna, a Ukrainian journalist and war correspondent who is a primary focus of the documentary, and several other characters from the film, including Anna Zaitseva, a young mother whose son Sviatoslav was just a baby when the invasion happened. The toddler, now 16 months old, attended the screening with his mom.
Afterwards, Zaitseva, Nagorna and a select group of others held a private audience with the pope. Zaitseva gave Pope Francis an update on her husband, who is seen in the film enlisting to fight in the Ukrainian army after the invasion started. She said he is being held somewhere in a Russian prisoner of war camp. Nagorna presented him with a white-tufted portion of a cotton plant — cotton having become a symbol of resistance in Ukraine.