VALLETTA, Malta — 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 extended that message to thank Europe for its kindness to the Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian war.
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. His limping from sciatica made it difficult for him to stand up on Sunday.
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. The biblical story of this period states that Paul was shown unusual kindness by the Maltese, who responded with preaching and healing to bring Christianity to these islands.
Francis spoke of the warm reception Malta gave Christ’s shipwrecked disciple when they met with migrants from Africa to seek refuge in Europe. 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 is a key issue in the European refugee debate. Humanitarian groups often criticize the country with half a million inhabitants for not allowing rescue vessels to dock in its ports. According to the government, it is one of the EU’s most efficient in handling first-time asylum requests relative to its population. Other, more powerful European countries need to take on the responsibility.
Just this week, an aid group from Germany urged Malta not to accept 106 migrants fleeing Libya. The mayor of Palermo in Sicily said that Malta would welcome the migrants on Saturday.
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 require an ID card” said Agyei Kwasi Btig, a Ghanaian living in Malta since eight years. You suffer in Europe if your ID card is not present. 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 stated that she attended the Mass in order to join the Maltese host families who had taken her in from a bus and train journey she took to get to Malta, Germany, and Poland. Shcherbyna carried both the Vatican and Ukrainian flags and said that she was going to pray for Ukraine. She also stated that she could not believe the events of the past few weeks.
” We were learning a lot at school about the Second World War and bomb shelters, as well as about this catastrophe, and thought that it was impossible. It had been ended in 1945, and we thought that was all. It’s now really shocking for us all,” she stated.
Another Ukrainian Orthodox in the crowd, Margaryta Gromova, fled recently from Kyiv and thanked Francis for speaking out.
“He is able to speak on this topic and he has the ability to pray for us. “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.”
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. This content is the sole responsibility of The Associated Press.