Pope arrives in Malta on Mediterranean mission
Valletta: Pope Francis began his first trip to Malta on Saturday, where he is expected to ask the strongly Catholic country to do more to help migrants who have risked their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.
The pontiff’s plane landed around 9:50 a.m. local time (0750 GMT) at Malta Airport south of the capital, ahead of a welcome ceremony with Prime Minister Robert Abela and dignitaries at the Grand Master’s Palace, the former seat of the Knights Hospitaller who reigned for centuries over the Mediterranean archipelago.
On board the papal plane, Francis – who boarded a lift for disabled passengers instead of stairs – told accompanying reporters that the visit to the small island nation would be “quick, but will be beautiful”.
The visit to Malta was planned two years ago but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, and now comes as war in Ukraine has sparked Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, with more than four millions of people fleeing the country.
Francis said on Twitter on Friday that his “journey in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul” would be an “opportunity to get to know firsthand a Christian community with a millennial history.”
Francis, who will visit a migrant center during his two-day trip, will likely renew his calls for an end to the war while reminding the world not to neglect those who continue to risk their lives at sea trying to reach Europe from North Africa.
“The Pope comes to our island as a herald and messenger of reconciliation and mercy not only in the Mediterranean basin, but throughout the world,” Malta’s Archbishop Charles Scicluna said in Italian magazine Christian Family published Friday.
Francis’ visit to Malta follows those of his predecessors Benedict XVI in 2010 and two visits by John Paul II, in 1990 and 2001.
The country’s history is steeped in Catholicism dating back to Saint Paul, who is said to have been shipwrecked in Malta en route to his execution in Rome.
Around 85% of Malta’s 516,000 people call themselves Catholic. Catholicism is part of the constitution and Malta is the only country in the European Union that completely prohibits abortion.
The pontiff will lead mass on Sunday before an estimated crowd of 10,000 in Floriana, near the capital Valletta, after a visit to St. Paul’s Grotto, where the apostle is believed to have sought refuge.
Also on Sunday, he will visit migrants living at the Hal Far Peace Lab, a center for migrants founded by a Franciscan friar in 1971 in honor of former Pope John XXIII.
The center currently houses 55 young male migrants from across Africa but is preparing for the arrival of refugees from Ukraine.
During his weekly audience Wednesday at the Vatican, Francis praised Malta for welcoming “so many brothers and sisters seeking refuge.”
But non-governmental rescue groups patrolling the Mediterranean have repeatedly accused Malta of ignoring calls for help from migrants in its waters, refusing to let them disembark or alerting Libyan authorities to intercept and bring them in overcrowded and unsanitary detention camps in Libya where they risk torture and abuse.
Maltese authorities say the country hosts a disproportionate share of migrants to Europe given its small size.
Ahead of Francis’ visit, German charity Sea-Eye called on him to ask the Maltese authorities to allow more than 100 people brought to safety by one of its migrant rescue ships to dock.
Following the Pope’s visit with Abela, whose Labor party won a third term in government following last weekend’s general election, he will take a catamaran from Grand Port in Valletta to the island of Gozo, where he will chair a prayer meeting at Ta’ Pinu National Shrine.
Francis, who suffers from painful sciatica which has sometimes caused him to cancel official events, did not take the stairs to board the plane from Rome Fiumicino Airport on Saturday morning, instead using an elevator for passengers with reduced mobility.