VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — Pope Francis prayed Sunday for an end to the “sacrilegious” war in Ukraine and for the world to show compassion to refugees as he concluded a two-day visit to Malta that was dominated by his concern for the devastation unleashed by Russia’s invasion.
“May we be tireless in praying and in offering assistance to those who suffer,” Francis said at the end of a Mass in Valletta, the capital of Malta, that drew 20,000 people, some of them waiving Ukrainian flags.
More Ukrainian flags greeted him outside a migrant shelter, where Ukrainian protesters shouted “Save our children!” and “Close the sky over Ukraine!”
Francis has used his two-day visit to Malta to drive home his call for Europe to show compassion to would-be refugees who cross the Mediterranean Sea from Libya. He has expanded that message to express his gratitude for the welcome Europe has shown Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian war and his hope that same generosity could be extended to others.
Though short, the trip has been particularly taxing for the 85-year-old pontiff, who is suffering from a chronic strained ligament in his right knee. He struggled repeatedly Sunday to get out of his chair and his limping gait from sciatica was so pronounced that he frequently had to grab the arm of an aide.
Francis opened his second and final day in Malta by visiting the Grotto of St. Paul in Rabat, where the Apostle Paul stayed after being shipwrecked off Malta en route to Rome in AD 60. According to the biblical account of the period, the Maltese people showed Paul unusual kindness, and he responded by preaching and healing, bringing Christianity to the islands.
Francis referred to that warm welcome Malta showed Christ’s shipwrecked disciple, meeting with recent migrants from Africa who paid smugglers to try to reach Europe to escape war and conflict. He told them that they “could be any one of us.”
“It is my hope that that is how Malta will always treat those who land on its shores, offering them a genuinely ‘safe harbor,’” he said.
Malta has long been at the heart of the European debate over refugee policy. The country of a half-million is frequently criticized by humanitarian groups for refusing to let rescue ships dock at its ports. The government argues it has one of the EU’s highest rates in processing first-time asylum applications relative to the population, and says other, bigger European countries should do more to shoulder the burden.
Just this week, a German aid group urged Malta to take in 106 migrants rescued off Libya. Malta demurred and on Saturday, the mayor of Palermo, Sicily, said the city was ready to welcome them.
While Francis has praised Malta’s response overall, some migrants at the Peace Lab social service center said they had been waiting for years for their asylum claims to be processed and that Malta really doesn’t work to integrate them.
“I need an ID card,” said Agyei Kwasi Batig, a Ghanaian who has been living in Malta for eight years. “In Europe, if you don’t have an ID card, you suffer. For everything, you need documents.”
Francis’ Mass, his biggest event in Malta, drew an estimated 20,000 people. They clapped when Francis urged the faithful in a final prayer to “think of the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in the martyred Ukraine, which continues to be bombarded in this sacrilegious war.”
Among those in the crowd was Alina Shcherbyna, a 25-year-old Ukrainian who arrived in Malta just over a week ago after fleeing her bombed-out home in Dnipro, leaving behind her parents, who are both doctors.
An Orthodox Christian, she said she was attending the Mass to accompany the Maltese host family who took her in after a solo train and bus journey that took her to Poland, Germany and the Netherlands before she flew to Malta. Carrying Ukrainian and Vatican flags, Shcherbyna said she wanted to ask the pope and the world for prayers for Ukraine, saying she still cannot believe what has happened in just a few weeks.
“At school we were studying a lot about the Second World War, about bomb shelters and about this disaster, and we thought it was impossible in present time. We thought it had ended in 1945 and that was it. But now, it’s really shocking for all of us,” she said.
Another Ukrainian Orthodox in the crowd, Margaryta Gromova, fled recently from Kyiv and thanked Francis for speaking out.
“He can really speak about this issue, he can pray for us,” she said. “We can feel the unity with other people, local people, the world, because we need support, like moral support, and all the support from God now.”
Follow all AP stories about developments related to the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.
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