War in Ukraine: Pope Francis plans visit to Kyiv and condemns Russia

VALLETTA, Malta – Pope Francis said on Saturday he plans to visit the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. He also condemned the one who unleashed the “wild” war, clearly condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In his speech in Malta, Pope Francis did not mention the name of Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, the reference was clear when the pontiff stated that “certain potentates” had begun the threat of nuclear war to the world in “infantile and destructive aggression”.

“We thought that invasions from other countries, wild street fights and nuclear threats were dark memories of a distant past,” the Pope told Maltese officials on the Mediterranean island.

The head of the Catholic Church has so far avoided calling Russia or Putin by his first name, following the Vatican’s tradition of not challenging aggressors in order to leave open options for dialogue. Saturday’s criticism noted the level of the Pope’s outrage.

The latter told journalists on his way to Malta that a possible visit to Kyiv was “discussed”, but no date had yet been set. The mayor of the Ukrainian capital on March 8 invited Pope Francis to come as an envoy of peace along with other religious figures, but recently warned that the city remains under threat from Russian troops.

The pontiff says that the war has made him so angry that he sometimes forgets about the severe pain in his knees. Pope Francis has been suffering from a sprain in his right knee for several months now. The inflammation became so severe that the Vatican arranged for it to be lifted and lowered by plane, which flew it to Malta on Saturday.

Pope Francis arrived on the Mediterranean island of Malta on Saturday, limping more than ever, for a two-day visit to draw attention to Europe’s migration problem, which has only worsened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The stakes have risen with the forced exodus of more than 4 million Ukrainian refugees since the start of the Russian invasion more than a month ago. Pope Francis has focused on the dangerous Mediterranean migration route and Europe’s flawed migration policy to welcome people fleeing war, poverty and conflict.

The head of the Catholic Church was due to visit Malta in May 2020, but his trip was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This weekend’s visit comes as the predominantly Catholic country prepares for its first personal Holy Week celebration in two years.

Pope Francis has often repeated Malta’s call for better distribution of migrant intake. He did it again on Saturday, linking it to the story of how the Maltese welcomed the apostle Paul, who, according to the biblical account, was shipwrecked off the coast of Malta about 60 years after Jesus Christ on his way to Rome. According to tradition, the islanders received him with unusual kindness.

Later Saturday, Pope Francis sailed on a catamaran to the island of Gozo, following his own Mediterranean maritime tradition, holding a prayer meeting at the National Shrine in Malta. Accompanied by two Maltese clerics who are key aides to the Vatican, the pontiff sat in a white chair on deck during the hour-long voyage and was greeted by the roar of cannons as the ship entered port from Gozo.

The island has often called on its larger European neighbors to take on more of the burden of accommodating refugees.

Accompanied by the President of Malta, Pope Francis denounced the “dirty deals” the European Union (EU) struck with Libya to push back the migrants and said Europe should show humanity in welcoming them. He called for the Mediterranean to be “a theater of solidarity and not a harbinger of the tragic shipwreck of civilization.”

He was referring to the EU’s training program for the Libyan Coast Guard, which patrols the coast of the North African country for migrant smuggling and returns potential refugees to the shore. The program has been strongly supported by Italy and other front-line Mediterranean countries to try to stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants every year.

Human rights groups have condemned the EU-funded program as a violation of migrants’ rights and have documented serious abuses in Libyan detention camps. Germany said earlier this week that its military would no longer train the Libyan Coast Guard given its “unacceptable” and, in some cases, illegal treatment of migrants.

The Sovereign Pontiff condemned the Libyan detention centers as concentration camps and went even further.

“Civilized countries cannot defend their interests through dirty deals with criminals who enslave other people,” he said.

Malta is the smallest country in the European Union (EU) with half a million inhabitants. It has long been at the forefront of the flow of migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean. Just this week, a German group came to the rescue of 106 migrants rescued at sea, and on Saturday the ship was headed for Sicily instead.

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