Under 'shadows of war', Pope urges Malta not to fear migrants
Pope Francis reminded Malta of its roots as a "safe harbour" in his first visit to the Mediterranean island nation Saturday, warning it not to succumb to isolation and fear amid migrant crises on multiple fronts.
The 85-year-old pontiff's visit to the archipelago, delayed two years due to the coronavirus pandemic, comes as war in Ukraine has unleashed Europe's worst refugee crisis since World War II, with more than four million fleeing the country.
Invoking "the dark shadows of war" spreading across Eastern Europe and castigating those "provoking and fomenting conflicts", Francis similarly recalled the ongoing influx of migrants from the south who try to cross the Mediterranean to reach the island shores of Malta, given its strategic position south of Sicily and to Africa's north.
"According to its Phoenician etymology, Malta means 'safe harbour'," the pope said in his opening address to Maltese dignitaries, including Prime Minister Robert Abela, at the Grandmaster's Palace, the former seat of the Knights Hospitaller who ruled Malta for centuries.
"Nonetheless, given the growing influx of recent years, fear and insecurity have nurtured a certain discouragement and frustration," Francis said, warning against "adopting an anachronistic isolationism".
- Don't look away -
With a population of just over a half a million inhabitants, Malta has argued it is unfairly penalised for its geographic position and takes a disproportionate share of migrants arriving by sea from North Africa.
The country has come under fire from charity rescue groups patrolling the Mediterranean, who say Maltese authorities turn a blind eye to migrants in peril in its waters.
But the responsibility for migrants in the Mediterranean, and the fresh crisis out of Ukraine, needed to shared by all countries in Europe, said Francis.
"The growing migration emergency -- here we can think of the refugees from war-torn Ukraine -- calls for a broad-based and shared response. Some countries cannot respond to the entire problem, while others remain indifferent onlookers," the pope said.
Addressing the conflict in Ukraine, in what appeared to be a barely veiled reference to Russia's Vladimir Putin, Francis said "some potentate, sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests, is provoking and fomenting conflicts..."
Before departing the Vatican Saturday for the two-day trip, Francis met Ukrainian refugee families newly arrived in Rome.
Asked by a reporter on the papal plane about a possible trip to Kyiv, the pope said a visit to Ukraine's capital was "on the table".
- ;Faith is waning' -
As Valletta's church bells rang and cannons fired, Pope Francis travelled at the bow of a ferry from the Grand Harbour, with views of Valletta's ancient fortifications, to the island of Gozo.
At the national shrine of Ta' Pinu, he warned against religious apathy, saying it was not enough to rely purely on tradition and history to keep faith alive.
"Beneath outward appearances, faith is fading," he cautioned, urging the majority Catholic nation to "go out to meet everyone with the burning lamp of the Gospel".
On his first official trip abroad this year, crowds lined the streets and children waved yellow and white Vatican flags as the leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics passed by in his white popemobile.
Still, some like local Marion Pizzuto said they were underwhelmed by the turnout.
"Back in 1990, I remember, it was packed everywhere," said the 62-year-old, referring to the visit by former pope John Paul II.
Francis limped visibly upon his arrival Saturday morning at Malta's airport and during the long day. He used a lift for reduced mobility passengers instead of the stairs on boarding and disembarking the plane.
The pope suffers from a painful sciatica that has occasionally caused him to cancel official events.
- 'Eliminate corruption' -
Malta's reputation on the international stage remains shaken by the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who before her death was investigating corruption at the highest levels of government and business.
Francis called on Malta -- which is included in a list of countries monitored by a G7 task force for money laundering -- to shore up transparency and justice, as "essential pillars of a mature civil society".
"May your commitment to eliminate illegality and corruption be strong, like the north wind that sweeps the coasts of this country," Francis said.
"May you always cultivate legality and transparency, which will enable the eradication of corruption and criminality, neither of which acts openly and in broad daylight."
On Sunday, the pontiff will conduct mass before a crowd of thousands following a visit to the Grotto of Saint Paul, where the apostle is believed to have sought shelter after being shipwrecked on Malta.
It is now preparing to welcome refugees from Ukraine.