Pope Francis said on Saturday he was considering a trip to Kyiv and implicitly criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin over the invasion of Ukraine, saying a "potentate" was fomenting conflict for nationalist interests.
Francis made the comments, first to reporters on the plane taking him to Malta for a two-day visit, and then in a hard-hitting speech in the island's presidential palace that left little doubt who he was referring to.
"From the east of Europe, from the land of the sunrise, the dark shadows of war have now spread. We had thought that invasions of other countries, savage street fighting and atomic threats were grim memories of a distant past," the pope said.
Moscow denies targeting civilians in the action it launched on Feb. 24, which it dubs a "special military operation" designed not to occupy territory but to demilitarize and "denazify" its neighbor. Francis has already rejected that terminology, calling it a war.
"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," Francis said.
"Once again, some potentate, sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests, is provoking and fomenting conflicts, whereas ordinary people sense the need to build a future that, will either be shared, or not be at all," he said, without mentioning Putin by name.
Francis' voice was strong but he sat to deliver his speech. For the first time in his 36 trips abroad, a flare-up of pain in his knee had forced him to use a freight lift to board the plane in Rome and disembark in Valletta - to avoid "unnecessary strain," Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said.
The pope, who was limping as he walked in the presidential palace of the predominantly Catholic island, has already strongly condemned what he has called an "unjustified aggression" and denounced "atrocities" in the war.
Read related stories:
- Two Orthodox Christian countries at war – here’s an explanation
- Putin says Russia, Ukraine share a faith - not the whole story
- Ukraine, Russia consecrated to Immaculate Heart of Mary in Israel
NIGHT OF WAR
But he has only referred to Russia directly in prayers, such as during a special global event for peace on March 25.
"Now in the night of the war that is fallen upon humanity, let us not allow the dream of peace to fade," he said at the palace.
He again criticized the armaments industry and expressed distress at the fading enthusiasm for peace that emerged after World War Two, saying the clash of interests and ideologies had "re-emerged powerfully in the seductions of autocracy, new forms of imperialism (and) widespread aggressiveness."
Earlier, asked by a reporter on the flight if he was considering an invitation to visit Kyiv, the pope answered: "Yes, it is on the table." He gave no further details.
Francis has been invited by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Ukraine's Byzantine-rite Catholic Church, and Ukraine's ambassador to the Vatican, Andriy Yurash.
He has spoken on the phone with Zelenskiy and Shevchuk.
Francis also condemned corruption in Malta, where claims of financial irregularities and nepotism have dominated the political narrative for much of the past decade.
"May you always cultivate legality and transparency, which will enable the eradication of corruption and criminality," he said.
Malta for years has been on the front line of Europe's migration crisis, with thousands of migrants arriving from north Africa trying to make their way to the mainland.
In an apparent reference to some EU countries sending migrants rescued at sea back to Libya, Francis denounced "sordid agreements with criminals who enslave other human beings."
Francis has in the past has compared conditions in centers holding migrants in Libya to Nazi and Soviet camps.