Priests freed in Ukraine – Russia prisoner exchange

Ukraine and Russia said yesterday that priests were among the dozens of captured soldiers and civilians they had exchanged earlier this week.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said two Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests taken captive in Moscow-occupied Berdiansk were handed back to Ukraine thanks to the mediation of the Vatican.

Meanwhile, Russia said a high-ranking Ukrainian Orthodox cleric was handed over to Moscow along with two other priests, AFP reported.

Churches have been heavily affected by the war, with Kyiv’s Orthodox church breaking ties with Moscow and Ukraine regularly accusing clerics of treason.

Moscow and Kyiv exchanged 90 POWs and some civilians each earlier this week.

Speaking at an event in Kyiv, Zelensky named the two released Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests as Bogdan Geleta and Ivan Levytskyi, and said they had been preaching in Berdiansk.

Bediansk, on the Azov Sea, fell to Russian forces in the first days of their February 2022 invasion. The priests had been held by the Russians since 16 November 2022, Zelensky added.

He said they were freed “thanks to the efforts of our team and the mediation of the Vatican, for which I am especially grateful.”

Pope Francis earlier this year expressed hopes for a “general” prisoner exchange between the two countries.

Metropolitan Ionafan, the Ukrainian Orthodox cleric handed over to Moscow, had been convicted in August 2023 of justifying the Russian invasion and was facing five years in prison.

Moscow’s ombudsman Tatiana Moskalkova said Ionafan was received by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill in Moscow.

She said two other Orthodox priests who had remained with Moscow’s patriarchy when the church split were also handed over to Russia in the course of the exchange.

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