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Pope to meet embattled Maltese PM despite protest

Joseph Muscat (Getty)

The Holy See has confirmed that a meeting between Pope Francis and Malta’s Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, remains on the papal schedule for Saturday, despite pressing requests from Maltese citizens and civic action groups that it be cancelled, and as calls continue for the embattled Mr Muscat’s immediate resignation.

In response to queries from The Catholic Herald, the director of the press office of the Holy See, Matteo Bruni, noted that the meeting was scheduled many months ago, and that it will be a private meeting, rather than an official visit. “I can confirm that tomorrow morning the Holy Father will receive the Prime Minister of Malta in audience,” Bruni told the Herald. “The meeting, scheduled months ago, will be strictly private, with his wife and family,” he further clarified.

After years of increasingly intense scrutiny of his record and criticism of his handling of a high-profile murder investigation, Muscat announced on Sunday that he would be relinquishing the leadership of his Labour Party after the election of a new party leader on January 12, and subsequently resigning. That was not enough to satisfy protesters, who continue to demand in growing numbers that Muscat resign immediately and submit himself to a full independent investigation.

Yorgen Fenech, the wealthy and well-connected Maltese businessman who was arrested on suspicion of complicity in the October 2017 murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, testified this week that he regularly received information regarding the murder investigation from Muscat’s former chief-of-staff, Keith Schembri. Schembri resigned late last month under a cloud of suspicion. Schembri denies all wrongdoing. He was briefly placed under arrest last week in connection with the alleged conspiracy.

Muscat faces increasing isolation on the international diplomatic stage. Maltese dailies reported Thursday that Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, cancelled a lunch appointment scheduled for Friday in Italy. The Vatican, however, will go ahead with the meeting scheduled for Saturday.

The Malta Independent reported on Thursday that sources inside the Vatican had told them the audience would take place as a private meeting rather than as a visit of state. The Independent cited sources as saying Muscat’s foreign minister would not accompany him, that there would be no meeting with the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States – roughly the Vatican’s foreign minister – and that there would be no press coverage of the encounter.

Maltesers have been urging the Holy See to cancel the meeting for some time, citing fears Muscat would use the occasion to garner support. Petitions have been circulating, including one dated November 27 and signed by nearly two dozen prominent Maltese academics, urging the Vatican to call off the meeting.

“In our view,” they wrote, “it is totally unwise, and pastorally undesirable, to involve the Holy Father in a propaganda exercise in an attempt to postpone an inevitable outcome, given the serious and grave nature of the accusations and allegations which are plaguing the present Administration of our country in full view of local and world media.”

Prof Albert Borg of the University of Malta, the chief draftsman and original signatory of the academics’ petition,  told the Catholic Herald he had also sent the document to the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, but had no reply as of Friday morning.

A group of leading Maltese activists also met the apostolic nuncio to Malta earlier this week to voice their concerns. Multiple sources in attendance said that meeting was not as serene as it might have been.

Especially troubling, they said, was the nuncio’s alleged mention of a €2 million subsidy secured from Muscat’s government for the purchase of computers for Catholic pupils. There was no issue with the subsidy itself, secured after significant advocacy on the part of leaders in Maltese Catholic education. It was difficult for callers to understand the relevance of that matter to their concerns.

“Basically, the gist of the nuncio’s statement was that the Muscat government gave him what he had asked for,” said Vicki Ann Cremona, a former diplomat and leading member of the grassroots Repubblika organisation, who was present at the meeting. “He said he went to the government, was welcomed, and found the government very helpful. Basically, he was grateful for the €2 million.”

The Catholic Herald contacted the nuncio, seeking clarification. After seeing our questions, the nunciature declined our invitation to comment.

Participants were also surprised by the behaviour of the nuncio’s secretary, Mgr Thomas Habib. They said he told them they talked a great deal, but had in essence no concrete proof the Prime Minister had committed any wrongdoing. One of the main points of contention in the Maltese crisis is precisely the difficulty in achieving a transparent and thorough investigation, as long as Muscat remains in the Prime Minister’s office.

“I was not particularly impressed by the secretary’s attitude,” said Dr Robert Aquilina, president-elect of Repubblika, who was present at the meeting. He declined to discuss particulars of his exchange with the nuncio, but told the Catholic Herald that Mgr Habib, “mentioned proof – saying there is no proof of wrongdoing – so it seems he was not appreciating the seriousness of the allegations against Mr Muscat.”

Ms Cremona agreed, but said she understood the delicate diplomatic niceties of the situation. “As a former ambassador, I understand protocol,” she said.

If Mr Aquilina was unhappy with certain aspects of his meeting with the nuncio, he was nevertheless at pains to praise Maltese Church leadership, who have put out a statement calling for “unity, truth, and justice with charity” in the crisis.

“What I would like to make clear, is that we find a lot of moral support from the Archbishop of Malta,” Charles J Scicluna, and his auxiliary bishop, Joseph Galea-Curmi, Dr Aquilina told the Herald.

In addition to the various petitions, the nuncio reportedly acknowledged receiving numerous letters and fielding many phone calls expressing concern and dismay over the scheduled audience. Several Maltese sources said there were more than a hundred letters, and “countless” phone calls.

There is now talk of concerned citizens travelling to Rome to protest against the scheduled meeting, though Prof Borg told the Herald he and other academics are focusing on a major demonstration scheduled for Sunday on Malta. “Many of [my colleagues] are involved in preparing for a huge protest on Sunday and that has been given priority,” he said.

Prof Borg said he believes his and others’ efforts are having an effect. “There are many of us,” he said, “who want to hold our heads high and long for the name of our country to be cleansed from the evil which has descended upon us through the greed of the few tempting the appetite of the many.”