By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press

VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — Pope Francis said on Saturday he was considering a possible visit to the Ukrainian capital of kyiv and lambasted the leader who launched a “savage” war, delivering his most pointed denunciation yet. of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In his remarks in Malta, Francis did not name President Vladimir Putin by name, but the reference was clear when he said that “a potentate” had unleashed the threat of nuclear war on the world in an “aggression infantile and destructive”.

“We had thought that invasions from other countries, savage street fights and atomic threats were dark memories of the distant past,” Francis told Maltese officials from the Mediterranean island nation at the start of a visit to the weekend.

Francis has so far avoided referring to Russia or Putin by name, in keeping with the Vatican’s tradition of not calling aggressors to keep options for dialogue open. But Saturday’s criticism of the powerful warlord marked a new level of outrage for the pope.

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“Once again, a potentate, unfortunately caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interest, is provoking and fomenting conflict, while ordinary people feel the need to build a shared future or not at all,” he said. declared.

Francis told reporters en route to Malta that a possible visit to kyiv was “on the table”, but no date has been set or any travel confirmed. The mayor of the Ukrainian capital had invited Francis on March 8 to come as a messenger of peace with other religious figures, but recently warned even healthy city residents who fled that the city was still under threat by Russian hostilities.

Francis also said that the war had hurt his heart so much that he sometimes forgets the pain in his knees. Francis has been suffering for months from a strained ligament in his right knee. The inflammation got so bad that the Vatican organized a tarmac lift to get him on and off the plane for Saturday’s flight to Malta, and his lameness was more pronounced on Saturday.

The visit to Malta, originally scheduled for May 2020, was still meant to focus on migration, given Malta’s role at the heart of the European migration debate. The issue has taken on greater importance with the forced exodus of more than 4 million Ukrainian refugees. Francis focused his remarks on the perilous Mediterranean migration route and Europe’s flawed migration policies in welcoming people fleeing war, poverty and conflict.

Addressing the President of Malta alongside him, Francis denounced the “squalid deals” the European Union has made with Libya to push back migrants and said Europe must show humanity by welcoming them. He called for the Mediterranean to be a “theater of solidarity, and not the harbinger of a tragic shipwreck of civilisation”.

Francis was referring to the EU program to train the Libyan Coastguard, which patrols the coast of the North African country for migrant smuggling and brings potential refugees back to shore. The program has been strongly supported by Italy and other frontline Mediterranean countries in an attempt to stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants each year.

But human rights groups have condemned the EU-funded program as a violation of migrants’ rights and have documented gross abuses in Libyan detention camps. Just this week, Germany said its military would no longer provide training to the Libyan coast guard given its “unacceptable”, and in some cases illegal, treatment of migrants.

Francis condemned Libyan detention centers as concentration camps, but went further on Saturday to shame the EU for its complicity in abuses there.

“Civilized countries cannot approve in their own interests sordid deals with criminals who enslave other human beings,” he said.

Malta, the European Union’s smallest country with half a million people, has long been on the front line of the flow of migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean and has often been criticized for refusing to let ships dock safety. Just this week a German aid group searched for a port for 106 migrants rescued at sea and on Saturday the ship was heading for Sicily instead.

Malta has frequently called on its larger European neighbors to shoulder more of the burden of hosting potential refugees.

Francis frequently echoed that call and linked it on Saturday to the welcome the Maltese once gave to the Apostle Paul, who, according to the biblical account, was shipwrecked off Malta around the year 60 when that he was traveling to Rome and showed unusual kindness to the islanders.

Later on Saturday, Francis traveled by catamaran to the island of Gozo, making the Mediterranean maritime tradition his own to hold a prayer meeting at the National Shrine in Malta. Flanked by two Maltese clerics who are key aides to the Vatican, Francis sat in a white chair on deck during the hour-long journey and was greeted by thundering cannons as the ship pulled into Gozo port .

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