Vatican City (AFP) – Pope Francis will travel on Saturday for a two-day trip to predominantly Catholic Malta, where he will again highlight the plight of migrants, as war in Ukraine sends a flood of refugees across Europe.
The 85-year-old pontiff is the third pope since 1990 to visit the small Mediterranean archipelago, where Saint Paul is said to have been shipwrecked in 60 AD – and which proudly carries his religion.
Catholicism is part of the constitution, and 85% of just over half a million people claim to be believers, while Malta is the only EU country that completely bans abortion.
But Malta is also a key destination for Pope Francis for his leading role in managing the massive influx of migrants trying to reach Europe, with thousands of them arriving here by sea over the years. years.
During five speeches, including one in a center for migrants, the sovereign pontiff is expected to reiterate his calls for a better reception of these arrivals, especially since the Russian invasion of Ukraine has created a new migration crisis. on the eastern flank of Europe.
“Malta is symbolic in many ways,” said Bernard Valero, a former French diplomat and expert on the Mediterranean region, noting its strategic positioning between Europe and Africa and a “scene of migration tragedy.”
“And the islands themselves – with a history of shipwrecks, of Saint Paul, of migration – have a very strong religious symbolism,” he told AFP.
Even in normal times, religion is evident everywhere in Malta, from historic churches – often illuminated – to streets where crosses hang above the road.
Ahead of the pope’s visit, key sites were refurbished, with new pavements laid, although preparations were forced to stall due to the March 26 general election.
No sooner had the Labor government declared re-election than political billboards were replaced with pictures of the smiling pontiff.
– Seek shelter –
A key moment in the pope’s trip to Malta will be his visit on Sunday to meet migrants living at the peace center set up in honor of former Pope John XXIII.
The Hal Far Peace Lab was founded five decades ago by a Franciscan friar, Dionysius Mintoff, who still runs it today, 91, with the help of volunteers.
He proudly displays a birthday message that Francis sent him last year and told AFP before the visit: “After Pope John, he is number one.”
Mintoff is currently preparing for the arrival of refugees from Ukraine – a conflict the pope has repeatedly condemned, calling for an end to “slaughter” and “rivers of blood”.
Speaking at his weekly audience on Wednesday, the pope said he looked forward to visiting the “bright land” of Malta and paid tribute to the welcome he had extended to “so many brothers and sisters seeking of sanctuary”.
Malta has been accused by NGOs of refusing to help migrant boats in distress in its waters, but it insists it is taking a disproportionate share.
– Health problems –
After arriving Saturday morning, the pope will meet Prime Minister Robert Abela and deliver a speech to officials and diplomats.
He will travel by catamaran from the port of the capital Valletta to the island of Gozo, where he will preside over a prayer meeting at the Ta’ Pinu National Shrine.
On Sunday, he will visit the grotto of Saint Paul, the island’s patron saint, and celebrate mass in a square in Floriana before a crowd of 10,000 people.
The visit – which had been planned for 2020 but postponed due to the coronavirus – was meticulously organized to meet the pope’s health needs.
“He has health problems, including knee and vision problems, so we have to count every step,” Carlo Schembri, who designed the areas where Francis will speak, told the Times of Malta daily.
Francis underwent colon surgery last summer and canceled a trip to Florence in February due to knee pain.
© 2022 AFP