popeVALLETTA (AFP) - – Pope Benedict XVI said Saturday the Roman Catholic Church had been wounded by sin as he flew to Malta on his first foreign trip since a wave of priest sex abuse scandals broke in Europe and the United States.

"Malta loves Christ who loves his Church which is his body, even if this body is wounded by our sins," he told accompanying journalists in a direct allusion to the scandals.

The pope's plane landed shortly after 1500 GMT after the brief flight from Rome to the deeply Catholic Mediterranean island country, where he is scheduled to stay just over 24 hours.

Benedict also referred to illegal immigration which has hit this tiny nation hard with people crossing from Africa to Europe in fragile boats, calling it "a great challenge for our times, to which we must respond".

In the evening, after gathering in Saint Paul's catacombs in the village of Rabat, the pope spoke of a "new evangelization (...) in the face of the many threats that weigh down on the sacred character of human life".

In Rabat, in the centre of the archipelago's main island, the apostle Paul took refuge in a grotto after his shipwreck on Malta, according to Christian tradition.

The visit comes amid near-daily reports of child-molesting priests in Europe or the United States, some homing in on the pope's role either as head of the Vatican's morals watchdog or earlier as archbishop of Munich.

Under the pressure of increasingly hostile opinion over allegations that the Vatican hierarchy including the pope himself helped protect predator priests, Benedict may hold an impromptu meeting with Maltese abuse victims, but far from the media spotlight.

Malta, where one in three children under 16 attend Catholic schools, has itself been hit by allegations of abuse at the orphanage they attended.

The smallest member of the European Union with a population of some 443,000, has also been scandalised by revelations that a suspected paedophile priest has retired here from Canada.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has said the pope would not bow to "media pressure" to meet with abuse victims and noted that his programme was "already very tight".

The Vatican's top official handling sexual and physical abuse allegations against clergy, Charles Scicluna, is expected to meet victims in June.

The Maltese Catholic Church revealed recently that a paedophilia "response team" it set up in 1999 had received allegations against 45 priests, of which nearly half had been ruled groundless, adding, however: "For the Church, every case is one too many."

Fuelling tensions, vandals last week defaced billboards promoting the papal visit, daubing Hitler-style moustaches on images of the embattled German pope, who turned 83 on Friday and is marking the fifth anniversary of his papacy on Monday.

The Maltese word for "paedophile" was spray-painted on one of the billboards.

Benedict paid a courtesy call on President George Abela and met with young people.

"Malta contributed so much to the defence of Christianity by land and by sea," he said in a speech as he met the president.

"You continue to play a valuable role in the ongoing debates on European identity, culture and policy.

"Malta has much to contribute to questions as diverse as tolerance, reciprocity, immigration, and other issues crucial to the future of this continent," he added.

Abela earlier called on the Maltese to welcome the pope with "enthusiasm and arms wide open", in a radio and television message.

The Vatican's ambassador to Malta, nuncio Tommaso Caputo said, "We will receive him with joy and gratitude" at a time when the pope is "suffering" while keeping his "calm".

Against this backdrop, the pope faces an uphill challenge in getting across the messages he had planned for Malta -- notably on immigration.

Malta, which lies halfway between Sicily and the north African coastline, took in nearly 3,000 boat people in 2008, a record number.

Hundreds remain crowded into detention centres awaiting word of their fate.

Benedict has called several times over the past few months for fair and human solutions on the issue.

Another theme that is close to the pope's heart is the preservation of Europe's Christian heritage.

Malta has one priest for every 490 Catholics, compared with a global average of one in nearly 2,900, according to Church statistics.

Abortion is illegal and not even a matter of debate, though an increasing number of Maltese are in favour of overturning the ban on divorce.

But during his visit the pope reiterated the Vatican's anti-divorce stance.

"Your nation should continue to stand up for the indissolubility of marriage," he said. "And for the true nature of the family, just as it does for the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death."

The trip is Benedict's 14th overseas since 2005 and the first this year.

It is also the third time a pope travels to the island nation, after John Paul II who visited in 1990 and 2001.