Pope laments 'tormented Ukraine' on final day of Malta visit

Pope Francis celebrating mass at the St Publius parish church in Malta on April 3, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

VALLETTA (AFP) - Pope Francis condemned the "sacrilegious war" in Ukraine at an open-air mass in Malta on Sunday (April 3), ahead of a visit to a migrant centre preparing to take refugees fleeing Russia's invasion.

He was speaking amid international outrage over the killing of civilians near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, after officials in Bucha said nearly 300 bodies had been found in mass graves after Russian forces withdrew.

"Let us pray for peace, thinking of the humanitarian tragedy of tormented Ukraine, still under the bombardments of this sacrilegious war," Pope Francis said after mass to an estimated crowd of about 12,000 worshippers in Floriana, outside Malta's capital of Valletta.

The war has overshadowed the 85-year-old's first trip to the Mediterranean island nation, but also added urgency to a key theme of his nine-year papacy - the need to welcome those fleeing war, poverty or the effects of climate change.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has triggered the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II - a continent already struggling to form a coherent response to thousands of people who arrive by sea each year from North Africa.

Catholic-majority Malta, located off the coast of Sicily, is on the front line of that influx but has been accused by charities of turning a blind eye to those in distress in its waters.

Pope Francis earlier on Sunday highlighted the example of St Paul - who according to Christian tradition was shipwrecked on Malta in 60 AD - to remind the world how to show charity.

Visiting the grotto in the Malta town of Rabat where the apostle lived for three months, the Pope lit a candle.

He said a prayer recalling how the shipwreck survivors were treated with "rare humanity" despite the fact that "no one knew their names, their place of birth or their social status".

Pope Francis called on God to "help us to recognise from afar those in need, struggling amid the waves of the sea, dashed against the reefs of unknown shores".

Later on Sunday, he will visit the John XXIII Peace Lab, a centre inspired by the pope of that name, which is preparing for the arrival of Ukrainian refugees.

Run for the past five decades by Franciscan friar Dionysius Mintoff, now 91, it already hosts around 55 young men from different parts of Africa who arrived in Malta without any legal papers.

The Pope, who last summer underwent colon surgery and cancelled an event in February due to acute knee pain, appeared to have trouble walking on Sunday during the visit.

But his first trip to Malta - delayed two years because of the coronavirus pandemic - has been warmly welcomed by people, who have lined the streets waving flags.

People waving the flag of The Vatican during a mass conducted by Pope Francis at the St Publius parish church in Malta on April 3, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

"He's a sign of hope in a time when nobody seems to believe anything any more," said Ms Isabella Dorgu, 38, an Italian living in Malta, as she strained for a view of the Pope at the mass.

Ms Anna Balzan, 67, draped in a Vatican flag purchased during Pope John Paul II's visit in 1990, expressed concern for the current pope's health, saying he looked "very tired yesterday".

Pope Francis has repeatedly condemned the war in Ukraine but has never directly blamed Moscow or Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He came closest on Saturday, warning that "some potentate, sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests, is provoking and fomenting conflicts".

Pope Francis has been invited to Kyiv by Mayor Vitali Klitschko - a trip that the pontiff said Saturday was "on the table", when asked by a reporter.

Although he emphasised Malta's status as a "safe harbour", the Pope also said all must share the burden for the world's migration crises.

"The growing migration emergency - here we can think of the refugees from war-torn Ukraine - calls for a broad-based and shared response," he said.

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