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Pope heads to Catholic Malta with migrant message
Pope Francis heads Saturday for a two-day trip to Catholic-majority Malta where he will again highlight the plight of migrants, as the Ukraine war sends a stream of refugees across Europe.
The 85-year-old pontiff is the third pope since 1990 to visit the tiny Mediterranean archipelago, where Saint Paul was said to have shipwrecked in 60 AD -- and which wears its religion proudly.
Catholicism is part of the constitution, and 85 percent of the just over half-a-million residents declare themselves believers, while Malta is the only EU country that completely bans abortion.
But Malta is also a key destination for Pope Francis for its frontline role in managing the mass influx of migrants who try to reach Europe, with thousands arriving here by sea over the years.
During five speeches, one of them at a migrant centre, the pontiff is expected to repeat his calls for a better welcome for these arrivals -- particularly since Russia's invasion of Ukraine has created a fresh migrant crisis on Europe's eastern flank.
"Malta is symbolic in several 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 the 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 the historic churches -- often illuminated -- to the streets where crosses are suspended above the road.
Ahead of the pope's visit, key sites have been spruced up, with new pavements laid, although preparations were forced to take a back seat due to March 26 general elections.
No sooner had the Labour government declared re-election, however, the political billboards were replaced with pictures of the smiling pontiff.
- Seeking refuge -
A key moment of the pope's trip to Malta will be his visit Sunday to meet migrants living at the peace centre set up in honour 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, aged 91, with the help of volunteers.
He proudly displays a birthday message Francis sent him last year, and told AFP ahead of 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 the "massacre" and the "rivers of blood".
Speaking at his weekly audience on Wednesday, the pope said he was looking forward to visiting the "luminous land" of Malta and paid tribute to the welcome it had shown to "so many brothers and sisters seeking refuge".
Malta has been accused by NGOs of refusing to help migrant boats in distress in its waters, but it insists that it takes a disproportionate share.
- Health problems -
After arriving Saturday morning, the pope will meet with Prime Minister Robert Abela, and give a speech to officials and diplomats.
He will take a catamaran trip from the harbour at the capital Valletta to the island of Gozo, where he will preside over a prayer meeting at the national shrine of Ta 'Pinu.
On Sunday, he will visit the Grotto of St. Paul, the patron saint of the island, and celebrate mass in a square in Floriana before a 10,000-strong crowd.
The visit -- which had been planned in 2020 but postponed due to coronavirus -- has been meticulously organised to accommodate the pope's health needs.
"He has health problems, which include knee and vision issues, 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 an operation to his colon last summer and cancelled a trip to Florence in February because of knee pain.