Pope Francis has urged European leaders to stop arguing over the fate of 49 migrants stuck aboard two humanitarian rescue ships on the Mediterranean and to let them land at a safe port of call.
In address to 60,000 people in St. Peter’s Square for the feast of the Epiphany, the Pope entered into a diplomatic dispute between Italy and Malta, and also ventured into a dispute within Italy’s populist government coalition between 5 Star and The League.
There are 32 migrants who have been aboard rescue vessel Sea-Watch 3 since December 22nd, while another ship run by the German group Sea-Eye is carrying 17 people who were rescued on December 29th.
Speaking at a political meeting shortly before the pope made his appeal, Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat defended his country’s refusal to take the vessels, saying it had no legal responsibility for the rescue.
He accused Malta’s critics of playing “the Christmas saint” while they themselves refused the ships a safe port.
“We need to find a balance between the human aspect and national security. This is an issue that might set a precedent and we should be vigilant about it,” Muscat said.
Italy’s deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the 5-Star Movement, said that Italy had for years taken migrants who arrived via the Mediterranean. “Now, Malta has to do its part,” he said.
Di Maio has said that Italy would accept women and children if Malta allowed the ships to dock. However, hardline League leader Matteo Salvini, the Interior Minister, oppose this line. Salvini has often criticized Pope Francis for his ongoing defence of migrants.