Pope visits three Indian Ocean countries seeking peace and reconciliation

A young boy sits on a fallen tree outside a school in Beira, Mozambique after two powerful tropical cyclones that ripped through the southern African nation this year and left hundreds dead. (Credit: Themba Hadebe/AP.)

Poverty, corruption, jihadism, political and social instability, financial scandal, civil war and harsh weather that scientists believe will become steadily more extreme are perhaps the real reasons Pope Francis has decided to visit “the three M’s” of the Indian Ocean from 4 today stopping in each country’s capital – Maputo, Antananarivo and Port Luis – as well as a special “city” Akamasoa, dubbed “the city of friendship” and home to 18 villages and 30,000 people, located in what used to be a garbage dump in Madagascar’s capital.

All these three need peace, which is why the official themes for each include the word.

Pope Francis’s return to sub-Saharan Africa begins in Mozambique, a nation which, according to the United Nations, ranks among the world’s poorest and least developed despite being rich in natural resources. Locals hope Francis’s visit inspires “Hope, Peace and Reconciliation,” as the country is still feeling the effects of a bloody civil war from 1977 to 1992.

In Mozambique, the Pope will meet President Filipe Nyusi just five weeks before voters go to the polls. Nyusi is running for re-election against the two main opposition leaders, one of whom is the leader of a former militia group.

Ossufo Momade, leader of the National Resistance party (RENAMO), and Nyusi signed a peace accord just a month ago. Several members of the international community, including the European Union, have warned that if the election is not conducted properly, it could reignite conflict.

Reconciliation an imperative

Father Ignacio Jussa, a Jesuit from Mozambique, told Crux that Mozambique “has the privilege of receiving Popes in times when reconciliation becomes an imperative.”

St. John Paul II visited Maputo in 1988 “when the civil war was ending,” Jussa said, and Pope Francis will arrive “a month after the government and Renamo signed a peace agreement.”

Mozambique’s civil war began in 1977 and officially concluded in October 1992 in Rome, with an accord to end a conflict that claimed a million lives and left four million displaced. Negotiations took place in the headquarters of the Community of Sant Egidio, a lay movement founded in Italy by Andrea Riccardi.

Energize Catholics

Jussa believes the papal visit will “energize” Catholics because Francis’s voice “unites, builds communion between different social classes in a country like Mozambique.”

Of the 29 million inhabitants, a majority are Christian but there are significant minorities who follow Islam and African traditional religions.

In recent months there’s been an uptick of Jihadist attacks, most of them in northern Cabo Delgado province, where an intensifying insurgency pits a little-understood network of militants- some of whom profess allegiance to ISIS- against local security forces.

The underlining reason behind the conflict is poverty. Even though there’s been an uptick in exploitation of natural resources in the region, it hasn’t translated into any improvement in life for inhabitants.

The country is also still reeling from catastrophic Cyclone Idai, which caused devastation in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. It killed at least 1,300 people in March and affected three million, destroying crops that people relied on for survival. In Mozambique the situation was so dire that rescuers had to let some people die to save others.

Difficult time

“The country took enormous steps backwards, and there’s going to be a very long process of rebuilding,” the CRS agent said. “His visit comes at a difficult time, and some have questioned it.”

In fact, Francis’s looming arrival in Mozambique has drawn some criticism, including from local observers who see it as a partisan photo op for Nyusi.

“But the Pope insists that the Church shouldn’t be afraid to get its hands dirty,”  noted the CRS agent in the country. “And that might be why he’s coming at a time of political turmoil and conflict, to bring a forceful message to the country’s leaders about their obligations.”