By Philip Pullella
VALLETTA (Reuters) -Pope Francis, struggling with leg pain, on Sunday said countries should always help those trying to survive “amidst the waves of the sea” as he wrapped up a trip to Malta, which is at the heart of Europe’s migration debate.
At the start of the last day of his trip to the Mediterranean island, Francis visited the grotto in the town of Rabat. According to tradition, St. Paul lived there for two months after he was among 75 people shipwrecked on their way to Rome in the year 60 AD. The Bible says they received unusual kindness.
“No one knew their names, their place of birth or their social status; they knew only one thing: that these were people in need of help,” the pope said in a prayer in the grotto.
The 85-year-old pontiff is suffering from a flare-up of leg pain and had difficultly walking in the small grotto. At a Mass for about 20,000 people afterwards, he mostly sat while Valletta Archbishop Charles Scicluna led much of the liturgy.
Francis had to use a lift to board his flight in Rome and disembark on arrival in Valletta on Saturday, and at the end of Sunday’s Mass, he skipped the traditional exit procession with all the bishops.
Malta is one of the more important routes used by migrants who cross from Libya to Europe.
“Help us to recognise from afar those in need, struggling amidst the waves of the sea, dashed against the reefs of unknown shores,” the pope said in prayer at the grotto.
The government of Prime Minister Robert Abela insists that the island, by far Europe’s most densely populated country, is “full up”, refusing to allow the disembarkation of migrants other than those rescued within its own rescue zone.
Francis’ last stop was a visit to a centre for migrants, known as a “peace lab”. There, he heard Daniel, a Nigerian, tell of his several attempts to reach Europe in un-seaworthy boats and how he was detained in Libya, Tunisia and Malta.
“Sometimes I cried! Sometimes I wished I had died … why were men like us treating us like criminals and not like brothers?” Daniel said.
Francis told them that the humanitarian crisis of migration was “a shipwreck of civilisation which threatens not only migrants but all of us”. Mistreatment of migrants sometimes occurs “with the complicity of competent authorities,” he said.
On Friday, the German NGO ship Sea Eye IV was outside Maltese territorial waters seeking to disembark 106 migrants rescued from Libyan waters and was denied entry.
Human rights organisations have criticised the island for its involvement in “pushbacks” where migrants rescued in coordination with Malta are taken back to Libya. The organizations say this breaks international law since Libya is not a safe country.
Speaking to Maltese government officials on Saturday, Francis denounced “sordid agreements with criminals who enslave other human beings”. He has in the past compared conditions in centres holding migrants in Libya to Nazi and Soviet camps.
Malta argues that Europe should have an effective “burden sharing” mechanism. Francis also has called several times for shared responsibility for migrants among European countries.
(Additional reporting by Chris Scicluna; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Susan Fenton)