- Catholic News Agency - Monday, April 4, 2016

Vatican City - On Sunday Pope Francis announced that a special collection will be taken up in all Catholic churches in Europe April 24, the funds of which will go toward relief for all suffering due to ongoing violence in Ukraine.

After celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Square on Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope Francis led pilgrims in praying the Regina Caeli, telling them beforehand that “on this day, which is like the heart of the Holy Year of Mercy, my thoughts go to all peoples who are thirsty for peace and reconciliation.”

“I think, in particular here in Europe, of the plight of those who suffer the consequences of violence in Ukraine,” he said, and pointed to the thousands who have either died, or continue to suffer due to a serious humanitarian crisis in the conflict areas.

Additionally, the Pope noted that so far “more than a million” people have been forced to leave their homes due to the severity of the situation, the majority of whom “are elderly and children.”

Francis assured his closeness and prayer to those suffering, and announced his decision “to promote a humanitarian support in their favor.”

“To this end, a special collection will take place in all of the Catholic Churches in Europe April 24,” he said, and invited faithful to participate with a “generous contribution.”

In addition to alleviating the material suffering of those effected by the conflict, the act serves as an expression of the Pope’s closeness and solidarity, as well as that of the entire Greek Catholic Church, Francis said.

“I fervently hope that this will, without further delay, help to promote peace and respect of rights in that land which is so tried.”

Conflict erupted in Ukraine in November 2013, when the former government refused to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union, leading to months of violent protests.

Tensions deepened in February 2014, when the country’s former president was ousted following the protests, and a new government appointed. In March of that year, Ukraine’s eastern peninsula of Crimea was annexed by Russia and pro-Russian separatist rebels have since taken control of eastern portions of Ukraine, around Donetsk and Luhansk.

More than 6,500 people, including civilians, have died in the fighting between Ukraine’s military and pro-Russian separatists. Roughly a million others have been forced to flee due to violence and a lack of basic humanitarian necessities.

Rebels have been supported by both Russian arms and troops, according to both Ukraine and Western nations. A ceasefire was brokered and officially began at midnight Feb. 15, 2015, however there have been constant and ongoing violations.

The announcement of Pope Francis’ special collection was made nearly a month after his March 7 meeting with leaders of the Permanent Synod of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (UGCC), who were gathered in Rome for their annual synod of bishops.

In his appeal, the Pope also noted how April 4 marks the World Day against Landmines, and prayed that a renewed commitment would be made to free the world from “these terrible weapons.”

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