Pope Blames a ‘Potentate’ for Casting ‘Dark Shadows of War’ on Ukraine

ROME — Pope Francis on Saturday inched closer to blaming President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for invading Ukraine and said that a trip to Kyiv was possible as he arrived in Malta for a short visit emphasizing the plight of migrants, an issue that has long topped the pontiff’s agenda and that has become critical with the war in Ukraine.

On the flight to Malta from Rome, Francis responded to a reporter’s question about visiting Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, by saying that it was “on the table.” Then in his address to the dignitaries and officials in a frescoed government chamber in Malta, Francis blamed a “potentate, sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests,” for casting “dark shadows of war” from Europe’s east.

Francis has refused to explicitly cite Mr. Putin or Russia as the aggressor for a variety of reasons, including the Vatican’s hopes of playing a part in a potential peace agreement, and out of precaution so as to not endanger Roman Catholics across the world. But on Saturday, he clearly seemed to be speaking about Mr. Putin, who, Francis said, was “provoking and fomenting conflicts.”

“We had thought that invasions of other countries, savage street fighting and atomic threats were grim memories of a distant past,” the pope added. “However, the icy winds of war, which bring only death, destruction and hatred in their wake, have swept down powerfully upon the lives of many people and affected us all.”

Civilians on Tuesday fleeing Irpin, the scene of fierce fighting in recent weeks in Ukraine.Credit…Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Francis, 85, spoke on Saturday during his 36th foreign trip since his election in 2013, but those years have taken a toll on him. He boarded the plane in Rome with the help of an elevator, as an inflamed ligament in his right knee and sciatica have recently increased his limp and reduced his mobility.

Once in Malta, he walked with difficulty — and with the help of an aide. Vatican officials raised concerns about his sailing later in the day on a catamaran to the island of Gozo and his navigating the steps into the Grotto of St. Paul on Sunday in Rabat, in northern Malta.

The trip, originally planned for May 2020, was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and now comes amid another unforeseen global disaster, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, bombing of civilians and forcing of another migration crisis. Before leaving Rome, he met with Ukrainian mothers and children who had escaped the war.

The pope, wearing his white robes over black pants, met with officials and dignitaries of an island that, according to the Scriptures, welcomed the Apostle Paul with “unusual kindness” when he was shipwrecked there, an image he played on in his address to appeal for better treatment of migrants.

“Paul was a man, a man in need of assistance,” Francis said. “Humanity is first and foremost: That is the lesson taught by this country whose history was blessed by the arrival of the shipwrecked apostle.”

Francis met with Malta’s president, George Vella, and other dignitaries at the presidential palace on Saturday in Valletta, Malta.Credit…Andreas Solaro/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

He said that according to its Phoenician etymology, Malta means “safe harbor.”

“Nonetheless, given the growing influx of recent years,” Francis said, “fear and insecurity have nurtured a certain discouragement and frustration.”

Migrant advocates in recent years have accused Malta of turning away desperate people from its shores. And even on Friday, Maltese news media reported that a ship carrying about 100 people rescued in international waters sought safe harbor in Malta, but that the government had refused to let them disembark.

On Saturday, Francis said that “from the poor and densely populated south, great numbers of people are moving to the wealthy north — this is a fact, and it cannot be ignored by adopting an anachronistic isolationism.”

But he also noted the new migration crisis unleashed by the war in Ukraine, and argued that Europe had more than enough land, and countries, to shelter them with dignity.

Francis also touched on other issues that have emerged in Malta, including the country’s struggles with corruption, smuggling and money laundering. In 2017, the country’s best-known investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, was murdered in a car bombing after accusing companies and politicians tied to a prominent businessman of corruption.

The crowd taking pictures of the pope on Saturday in Valletta, the capital.Credit…Remo Casilli/Reuters

In a clear allusion to corruption, Francis urged Malta to “shore up the foundations of life in society, which rests on law and legality” and to “cultivate legality and transparency, which will enable the eradication of corruption and criminality, neither of which acts openly and in broad daylight.”

But it was the war in Ukraine that demanded much of his attention. The pope urged for cooler heads in the face of an “infantile and destructive aggression that threatens us, before the risk of an enlarged Cold War.”

Francis has long appealed for disarmament, a position he has maintained, even as Europe seeks to defend itself in the face of a growing Russian threat. Last month, he angrily said he was “ashamed when I read that a group of states has committed to spending 2 percent of their G.D.P. on the purchase of weapons, as a response to what is happening now — the madness!”

Instead, he has talked about achieving global peace through undefined “international relations,” which would replace a model governed by “economic-technocratic-military power.”

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