By Silvia Gattas
VALLETTA, Malta, MARCH 24, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI's April 17-18 visit to the Mediterranean island of Malta is inspiring many hopes in its people, says the president of that country, George Abela.
Abela spoke with ZENIT about his hopes for the forthcoming Papal trip, which will mark the 1950th anniversary of St. Paul's shipwreck.
In this interview, he discussed the Christian roots of Malta and Europe in general, the problem of immigration, the court ruling on crucifixes in schools, and other issues his Catholic-majority country has faced.
ZENIT: Pope Benedict XVI will visit Malta for the first time. Which hopes and expectations does your country place in this visit?
Abela: The great majority of Maltese identify themselves as Catholic and many are still practicing Catholics as evidenced by statistics on church attendance.
His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, therefore, as the head of the Catholic Church and Vicar of Christ, is considered as our spiritual pastor.
The Pope's visit is expected to contribute to a spiritual renewal among the faithful and to afford an opportunity to Maltese youth to meet him in person and to get to know him better.
It is hoped that the Pontiff's inspired teachings, such as those contained in his three encyclicals, will become more widespread among the population as a result of this visit.
We consider these teachings relevant not to Catholics only. The values the Pope represents transcend space and time.
ZENIT: What do you think of Malta's Christian roots? Do you think they can be regenerated by the Pope's visit, on the anniversary of St Paul's shipwreck?
Abela: Malta has been Christian and its culture has been European for many centuries.
Our faith, our traditions and our mores have been molded around Christian beliefs.
In the past, daily life -- birth, marriage and even the rituals associated with the end of life -- all centered around the Church and religious faith.
Although this is less so today, the vestiges of the past still permeate our modern way of life. Although the tree may have changed its leaves, the roots are still the same.
While the Maltese State is secular, many of our laws still reflect Christian values.
A secular State does not mean that there cannot be cooperation with the Church where this is for the common good. Cooperation in the expansion of Church schools is one aspect which springs to mind.
We are confident that the Pope's visit will contribute to an awareness that the faith which St. Paul brought to our islands is still relevant today not only in the life of the spirit but also for the universal and timeless values which may enhance our temporal lives.
ZENIT: What is Malta's role in the European Union?
Abela: Malta forms part of Europe not only geographically but also culturally.
There is now widespread consensus that Malta's place is within the European Union. Its main role is like that of any other Member State of the Union.
We do feel, however, that we may have some special roles. One of these is that of doing our best to foster peace and dialogue among the nations and cultures of the Mediterranean Region and to work to enhance the European Union's good relations with the Arab world in all sectors.
Our national policies reflect this role. We feel that our geo-strategic location at the center of this historic sea as well as our contacts with the States and cultures of the southern littoral provide us with a measure of insight that qualifies us for this role.
If Malta may also be instrumental in engendering a more positive approach to certain cardinal values such as the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life, then we would gladly embrace that role as well.
ZENIT: Immigrant landings and their being turned back is a contentious issue for many States. What is your opinion on this matter? Do you think the Pope can contribute to a solution?
Abela: Immigration has now reached proportions that were unforeseen and have become unsustainable in their present shape.
There is a need for immigration to become a planned and structured phenomenon if Europe feels that its future economic requirements entail a measure of arrivals from other countries.
Haphazard immigration has sometimes resulted in unsatisfactory living conditions for the immigrants themselves and disillusion as to what this "promised land" was expected to offer.
It is imperative that the countries of origin of the migrants cooperate with Europe to ensure that immigration takes place in a planned manner that ensures not only that the European countries are prepared to receive these migrants according to Europe's prevailing economic and social needs but also that the dignity of these migrants is fully respected.
As the situation is today, most of the migrants are victims of unscrupulous criminal organizations whose motive is not the welfare of the migrants but their exploitation.
Malta is presently shouldering a burden totally out of proportion to its size and material resources. We believe that, as a temporary solution, our burden should be shared with our European partners, for this problem is not Malta's alone but Europe's.
The more permanent solution is to assist the migrants' countries of origin to achieve a higher economic development and a resolution of internal conflict that would make these countries more attractive to their own people and remove their urge to migrate.
I feel that the problem of immigration being a political in as much as it is a social and human drama intrigues His Holiness the Pope.
The Pope, however, has the role of teaching about the value of the human person and that everyone should be treated with the dignity which all humans deserve.
The Church, in fact, makes a very important contribution in many countries from where migrants originate by running schools and hospitals that contribute to the welfare of the population and help in the development of these countries.
ZENIT: What do you think of the European ruling on the removal of the crucifixes? Do you thing that a court can rule on such matters, so entwined with human rights, like religious freedom?
Abela: The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that crucifixes displayed in schools are a breach of human rights was an unfortunate one, in my view.
A court does not exist in a vacuum. In my opinion, if the court in Strasbourg considered itself competent to decide on this matter, which in my view is not, then it had to look at all the circumstances, foremost amongst which are European religious sensibilities, history, culture and the very identity of our continent itself.
A large section of European peoples still identify themselves as Christian even if they do not all practice their religion.
Apart from the fundamental religious significance of the crucifix, European history and culture are inextricably bound with the history of Christianity of which the crucifix is the most sublime symbol.
European culture has its roots in Christianity: some of the most edifying works of literature and art were inspired by Christian beliefs and values.
The crucifix is not only a fundamental sign of the importance of religious values in European history and culture but it is also a symbol of unity and solidarity with all of humanity, a symbol of tolerance, not of exclusion or denial of rights to non-Christians or atheists.
The figure of the crucified Christ embodies compassion with all fellow human beings and inspires selfless concern with those who suffer. The dignity and inviolability of the human person from the moment of conception to the natural end of life and the concept of the inestimable value of human life are all symbolized in the crucifix as the unmistakable badge of Christianity.
How all this could be found offensive or as breaching human rights is beyond my comprehension.
The government of Malta, reflecting the sentiments of the great majority of our people, categorically disagrees with the decision and has asked the European Court of Human Rights to intervene in the appeal lodged by Italy to signal its support.