MAPUTO, Mozambique — Pope Francis is opening a three-nation pilgrimage to southern Africa with a strategic visit to Mozambique, just weeks after the country’s ruling party and armed opposition signed a new peace deal and weeks before national elections.
Thirty years after St. John Paul II begged Mozambicans to end their civil war, Pope Francis is expected to endorse the new Aug. 1 accord and urge its full implementation when he was to meet with government authorities on Sept. 5, his first full day in the region. He arrived late Sept. 4 but had no public events scheduled after his brief airport welcome ceremony.
The timing of the visit is not coincidental, coming just weeks after the signing of the accord between the ruling Frelimo party and the armed Frenamo opposition and before national elections on Oct. 15. The vote is considered crucial because a new constitutional amendment has decentralized power so that provincial governors will now be elected directly, rather than being appointed by the central government.
Mozambique’s 15-year civil war, which ended with a 1992 peace deal, killed an estimated 1 million people and devastated the former Portuguese colony. The permanent cease-fire signed Aug. 1 was the culmination of years of negotiations to end fighting that has flared sporadically in the 27 years since.
In central Mozambique, Gorongosa National Park warden Pedro Muagura said there are hopes the pope’s visit will strengthen the deal.
“In general, people are very, very optimistic that the pope will be a good influence for peace and good elections,” said Muagura. “In 1992, our peace agreement was signed after the pope’s visit,” he said, referring to St. John Paul’s historic 1988 trip. “Now there are the same expectations that this pope will bring a positive influence, reconciliation between all Mozambicans. Those are the hopes of so many people here.”
Pope Francis will also reach out to Mozambicans affected by back-to-back cyclones that ripped into the country earlier this year, leaving more than 650 people dead and destroying vast swaths of crops on the eve of harvest.
The unprecedented storms laid bare the impact of climate change on countries like Mozambique, which with its 2,400-kilometer (1,500-mile) coastline is one of the world’s most vulnerable to the rising sea levels, warming waters and unpredictable storms blamed on global warming.
Pope Francis has made environmental concerns a pillar of his papacy, linking global warming to the persistent exploitation of the world’s poor by the wealthy.
Environmental concerns are also expected to be on Pope Francis’ agenda when he travels to the Indian Ocean island nation of Madagascar, home to ecosystems and wildlife that exist nowhere else on Earth. Deforestation is threatening vital habitats, with farmers slashing and burning forest land to find fertile soil in a country beset by cycles of cyclone and drought.
“The major issues here are increased cyclones and floods which we’re seeing which seem to be more frequent and more intense,” said James Hazen, Madagascar representative for Catholic Relief Services, the humanitarian arm of the U.S. bishops conference, which has been on the island for five decades working with the poor and on environmental concerns.
In addition, the pope is likely to call for more responsible, transparent government in both Mozambique and Madagascar. Both countries rank among the world’s poorest and Transparency International lists them among the most corrupt. On Madagascar alone, 75 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
The Sept. 4-10 trip is Pope Francis’ second pilgrimage to sub-Saharan Africa, which the Catholic Church is looking to as its future given that Africa is one of the few places on Earth where Catholic communities and priestly vocations are growing.
Pope Francis will encourage that growth, especially as he honors Catholics who were instrumental in spreading the faith in Africa before him. Among them is Jacques-Desire Laval, a 19th century French missionary who dedicated his life to preaching to the black slaves of Mauritius. Pope Francis will pray at his tomb during a daylong stop on the Indian Ocean island.