At an audience Thursday, the Pope welcomed 1,500 people, representing the 50,000 Italian families who annually receive children from Ukraine and Byelorussia for a five-month stay in Italy. The children are all contaminated by radiation.
The Pope himself was welcomed in Paul VI Hall by the singing of the Kiev children´s choir. Some of the children are physically marked by the Chernobyl catastrophe; many of them are under medical treatment in Italy. Charity, the only possible answer to that "ecological catastrophe that made history," made it possible for them to go to Rome, the Holy Father said.
Looking ahead to his June 23-27 visit to Ukraine, the Pope expressed the wish "to kiss that land that has suffered so much."
He addressed the children at the celebration and their Italian host families: "The Pope embraces you," he said, adding: "Seeing you, I feel compelled to thank God for the chain of generosity that since then has not ceased to alleviate the sorrows and difficulties of those who continue to be innocent victims of the consequences of that tremendous catastrophe."
About 5 million people were exposed to nuclear radiation when one of the reactors at the Ukrainian power plant burst into flames on April 26, 1986. A toxic cloud from the accident spread across Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, contaminating thousands of people.
According to data revealed by Vatican Radio, it causes respiratory problems, blood and intestinal ailments, and cancer. About 3.4 million people were seriously exposed to radioactivity; of these, 1.2 million are children, whose immune systems have been weakened.
"In recalling the tragic effects caused by the accident of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, one´s thoughts go to future generations represented by these children," the Pontiff said.
"It is necessary to prepare a peaceful future for them, without fear of similar threats," he added. "This is a commitment for all. In order for this to take place, it is necessary that a common scientific, technical and human effort be made to put energy at the service of peace, in respect of man´s and nature´s needs. The future of the whole of mankind depends on this."
He continued: "While we pray for the numerous victims of Chernobyl, and for those who bear in their bodies signs of such a great catastrophe, let us ask the Lord for light and support for those at different levels who are responsible for the destiny of humanity."
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma wrote, in a message to those attending the celebration with the Pope, that the closure of the Chernobyl plant "is only the first step" of "a long road."
Ukraine is having political problems too. On Thursday its Parliament approved a motion to censure reformist Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, which implies the removal of the entire Cabinet and an uncertain economic future for the country.
The former Soviet state has been going through a time of political unrest ever since Kuchma was linked last year with the case of a murdered journalist, which provoked mass street protests in the capital, Kiev.