FLORENCE, Italy (CNS) – Bishops and mayors of cities around the Mediterranean gathered to talk about migration, peace, development and the promotion of human rights, but war broke out in Ukraine and overshadowed their talks.

Benjamina Karic, the 31-year-old mayor of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, was at the meeting in Florence. His city became the symbol of the last war fought in Europe, the Balkan war of 1991-95. Karic, speaking on Italian television on February 26, offered prayers for the residents of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, especially for the frightened children crammed into shelters as the fighting continued.

The “Mediterranean for Peace” meeting opened in Florence on February 23 before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his offensive. The gathering brought together 60 bishops from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa for their own meeting and for joint discussions with 65 city mayors from 20 countries in the Mediterranean basin.

Pope Francis was due to address the bishops and mayors at the end of their meeting on February 27 and celebrate a mass in Florence, but he canceled his trip after his doctors prescribed him rest for severe knee pain.

Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian episcopal conference, celebrated Mass instead, leading prayers for Pope Francis and, above all, for an end to what he described in his homily as “an unjust war and useless”.

“We are living in dramatic times,” the cardinal said Feb. 26 as he opened a joint session of bishops and mayors.

“The madness of war must be stopped,” he said. Too many bishops and mayors present “know this scourge, which is why we asked and continue to ask for peace. Any conflict is a “useless killing”, as Benedict XV said at the height of the First World War. The present can only be summed up in a word that becomes an invocation: peace!

Dario Nardella, the mayor of Florence, told the rally: “These are days marked by fear, despair and deep concern for what is happening in Ukraine because of this attack which is claiming civilian victims and not only military ones. “.

Bishops and mayors do not have armies, he said, but they are responsible for building bridges, helping citizens to move around, ensuring the education of children – all of this favoring dialogue, which “is the only way to achieve peace between our cities and between our peoples.

At the end of the meeting, the participating bishops and mayors signed the “Charter of Florence”, pledging to work together to promote peace and social harmony, respect the rights of migrants and refugees, guarantee religious freedom , protect the environment and increase employment opportunities, especially for women and young people.

But the charter did not ignore Ukraine: “A feeling of pain has gripped the bishops and mayors, who together hope that violence and the use of arms might cease, that great suffering would be avoided for the people Ukrainian and that negotiations to rebuild peace could begin immediately.

Closing the meeting in place of the pope on February 27, Cardinal Bassetti insisted on the interest of the discussions, especially given the war in Ukraine.

“As a deranged war erupts in Ukraine, wreaking death and destruction, the clock of history has stopped in Florence and strikes the hour of peace and dialogue,” he said. .

Europe, Asia and Africa touch the Mediterranean “with different cultural traditions and with a conflicting political history, but also with strong points of interconnection”, he said, especially through its cities. and its religions.

“The Mediterranean has always been a place of transit and trade – not just military clashes, not just political borders,” he said, “but also a meeting place for coastal towns and religious communities.” .

The task of political and religious leaders around the sea and the world, the cardinal said, is “to unite what has divided us for centuries, to unite in the name of human brotherhood…to unite for peace, an epic challenge”.

Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia-Città della Pieve, president of the Italian episcopal conference, greets children during a meeting with refugees and displaced families at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, Feb. 27, 2022. Pope Francis was due to take charge but was unable to travel to Florence due to severe knee pain. (CNS Photo/Vatican Media)