ROME – As Pope Francis heads to Malta Saturday morning, his native country of Argentina is marking the 40th anniversary of the beginning of a war against the United Kingdom over islands that the pontiff’s people call Malvinas, and the British call the Falklands.

On the occasion, the Argentinean church has decided to put together moments of reflection, led by Bishop Santiago Olivera, Argentina’s military bishop, who reflected on the war that lasted from April to June in 1982.

Four decades after the conflict, the prelate affirms that “we are not claiming our sovereignty, but we are claiming the right to exercise that sovereignty,” insisting without ambiguity that “we certainly believe that the Malvinas are Argentine.”

The bishop also remembered those who gave their lives “defending our homeland,” meaning more than 640 people who died in the fighting, and also the men who returned from Malvinas, “war veterans whom we must recognize, thank and always value.”

Some 250 British troops were killed during the two-month long conflict.

Olivera also said that “we have in mind the families of those who have left and those who have in their bosom these men who knew, as young men, to defend part of our national territory in adverse situations.”

The bishop’s words came in a video message distributed by AICA, the press agency of the Argentine bishops’ conference.

According to the prelate, marking the 40th anniversary of the war – the only one Argentina has fought in modern history – is an opportunity to “put into consideration the terrible evil of war. We all lose. Although there are, in quotation marks, apparent winners, we all lose.”

He spoke of the world’s current wars and asked Our Lady of Lujan, patroness of Argentina, “for peace, for encounter, for dialogue, for truth and justice,” insisting that “we always want to walk in our society and in our world, paths of encounter, fraternity and peace.”

On Saturday, the anniversary of the day the war began, Bishop Oscar Ojea, president of the Argentine bishops’ conference, was set to say Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Lujan with veterans and families of those who gave their lives in attendance.

It was the conflict over the island, and two dependent territories in the South Atlantic – South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands – that motivated Pope John Paul II to visit the South American country for the first time, two weeks after visiting the United Kingdom.

Though his British trip, which would focus on ecumenism, had been in the works for almost two years, in an attempt to appease anti-war protesters who wanted him to suspend the visit, the Holy See quickly prepared a journey to Argentina, too, to avoid coming out as favoring one side.

The days leading to the Vatican’s announcement of a papal visit to Argentina, the Polish pope went out of his way to express his closeness to the country that was, back then, under military rule.

Arguably, the strongest sign of support came on May 25 – the day Argentine marks as the beginning of its revolution for independence from Spain. That day, John Paul II published a “Letter to the Argentinean Faithful,” in which he asked for understanding for not canceling the trip that had been two years in the making.

Argentinian soldiers pose with a statue of Our Lady of Luján during the 1982 Falklands War. (Credit: Military Diocese for Argentina.)

“If the tragic events that have their central point in the southern region of the Atlantic Ocean and that are related to the conflict between Argentina and Great Britain had not taken place in the last weeks, this trip would not require any explanation, as it has not been necessary for any other trip made to visit the Churches that are in the different countries and continents,” the Polish pope wrote.

“However, in view of the present painful circumstances, I must give you this clarification, knowing that you will accept it as a loyal testimony of affection, in the evangelical service to the world.”

John Paul II also argued that in undertaking this journey, in spite of all the difficulties that are accumulating, and with his “spirit burdened with sorrow for the deaths caused by the conflict between Argentina and Great Britain, he cherishes the firm hope that an honorable solution would soon be found through the paths of peaceful negotiation.”

“For my part, I have not ceased from the beginning to strive, with all the means at my disposal, for a solution which, while maintaining the character of a just decision and in accordance with the sense of national honor, will be able to save both parties, and perhaps also other societies, bloodshed and other terrible effects of war,” he wrote.

The conflict was a major episode in the protracted – and still ongoing – dispute over the territories’ sovereignty. Argentina asserted at the time – and still does today – that the islands are Argentine territory. For this reason, the country claimed that, by occupying the island on April 2, 1982, the country was reclaiming its own territory.

The British government regarded the action as an invasion of a territory that had been a Crown colony since 1841. The islanders, who have inhabited the islands since the early 19th century, are predominantly descendants of British settlers, and strongly favor British sovereignty.

Though Pope Francis has avoided any “official” comments regarding the sovereign statute of the islands, there are at least two instances during his decade-long pontificate in which the matter was front and center. The first one came in 2015, when at the end of one of his weekly audiences, he was photographed holding a sign calling for Argentina and England to “dialogue” over the islands. The second came in 2019, when he “oversaw” the return of a replica of the image of Our Lady of Lujan that accompanied the Argentine army during the war but which was seized by the UK’s military.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma