In ordinary times, Malta would seem like home from home for a visiting Pope. But when a beleaguered and visibly weary Benedict XVI touches down on the island this afternoon at 5pm, he faces a tense and potentially perilous 24 hours, in what is seen as a crucial test of this popularity as he ventures overseas for the first time since the paedophilia scandal began to engulf his church.
The tiny Mediterranean state, the last place in Europe where divorce is not possible, is among the most devout in the Catholic world. But the paedophilia crisis is raging here as well, with news that 25 of the island's 855 priests face abuse allegations.
Officially the visit is meant to commemorate the 1,950th anniversary of Saint Paul's shipwreck on Malta. Anxious church officials see the trip as a chance for the pontiff to find a haven of calm after two months in which the Vatican ship of state has navigated stormy seas. They are all too aware that if Malta gives a hostile welcome, then far more difficult trips lie ahead, notably to Britain in September.
The Vatican would like the world to focus on the five speeches the Pope will make during his whirlwind tour. More likely, all eyes will be on the 10 Maltese abuse victims who are demanding a meeting with the pontiff. If the Pope does meet the 10 face to face it would be the first such encounter since the clerical paedophilia scandal exploded across Europe. After indicating earlier in the week that Pope Benedict would agree to their requests, the Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, has subsequently said the Pope is unlikely to fit in a meeting with abuse victims in his "already tight" programme.
One of the 10 victims, 37-year-old Lawrence Grech, who says he was repeatedly attacked as a child at a church-run orphanage, has said the Pope should use the two-day trip April 17-18 to address himself to victims as he did in his letter to Irish Catholics last month.
"He should recognise that these things happened in Malta, reflect about the victims' suffering and issue a formal apology," Mr Grech said.
The victims' demands will add huge pressure to what is already a physically demanding visit for the pontiff, who celebrated his 83rd birthday yesterday. There are six separate appearances and five speeches planned before Pope Benedict flies back to Rome on Sunday – in time for the special lunch with cardinals on Monday to mark the fifth anniversary of his election.
Security in Malta will be particularly tight after the abuse cases reported on the island last week saw vandals deface billboards promoting the papal visit. The Maltese word for "paedophile" was spray-painted on one billboard. On others Hitler-style moustaches were daubed on images of Pope Benedict.
The island's police chief, John Rizzo, said: "Several people were brought in for questioning to see if they posed a risk to security this weekend." Those questioned are thought to have been university students who were planning protests.
The pontiff will pay a courtesy call on President George Abela and meet with young people as well as visiting Rabat, in the centre of the archipelago's main island, where tradition has it that the apostle Saint Paul took refuge in a grotto after his shipwreck. He will meet children and youths and celebrate an open-air mass expected to be attended by some 50,000 people – about an eighth of the population.
The mayor of a town near Malta's main airport has called in vain for the removal of a sculpture resembling a penis near the road leading to the capital, Valletta. Mayor John Schembri said the "obscene" and "embarrassing" sculpture by Paul Vella Critien should be removed "as a sign of respect" for the visiting pontiff. Critien insists that his "Mediterranean Column" is a modern three-dimensional representation of a symbol dating from ancient Egypt.
Two Maltese MPs have received invitations to the papal mass on Sunday while their unmarried partners were excluded, a Church spokesman said: "Had we also invited the partners ... it would mean that the Church would be condoning cohabitation."Reuse content