BY NICOLE WINFIELD, ANDREW MELDRUM
VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis heads this week to the southern African nations of Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius, visiting some of the world’s poorest countries in a region hard hit by some of his biggest concerns: conflict, corruption and climate change.
The Sept. 4-10 trip is 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.
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. Francis will pray at his tomb during a daylong stop on the Indian Ocean island.
On the first leg of the trip, Francis is expected to encourage Mozambique’s peace process, which took a major step forward in August when the ruling Frelimo Party and the armed opposition Renamo signed a new peace agreement.
In 1992, the Rome-based Catholic charity Sant’Egidio Community helped broker the first peace deal to end Mozambique’s 15-year civil war, which had 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.
Angelo Romano, a Sant’Egidio official who represented the European Union during international mediation efforts that helped lead to the Aug. 1 accord, said Francis’ visit would help solidify the deal and help the whole country look forward.
“I think it’s a very happy coincidence that Pope Francis is coming right after the signing,” Romano said. “Clearly it’s a peace that has to be applied, respected and made to grow. But there’s no doubt that the pope in some way can put his seal on it.”
Tom Bowker, editor of Mozambique’s Zitamar news service, said the pope’s visit wasn’t seen necessarily as an endorsement of the ruling Frelimo government of President Filipe Nyusi ahead of October elections. Rather, he said, it was an endorsement of the peace accord itself.
“The peace deal looks a bit fragile, with some hard-liners in Renamo rejecting it. And it is not known how the elections will go,” he said. “So the pope could encourage cooperation between Frelimo and Renamo.”
In a videotaped message released on the eve of the trip, Francis recalled that when St. John Paul II visited Mozambique in 1988, he emphatically called for peace to end the war that was still raging. Francis said he wanted his own visit to consolidate Mozambique’s process of reconciliation.
“I’ll have the joy to share directly with you these convictions and also verify how the seeds planted by my predecessor John Paul II are growing,” he said.
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.
More than 1.3 million people are said to require food aid in one of the world’s least developed countries, where even before the cyclones hit, 40 percent of children were stunted from malnutrition.
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.
More so than any pope before him, 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. He has issued an entire encyclical on the need to care for God’s creation and next month will preside over a meeting of bishops from the Amazon, where an outbreak of rainforest fires have once again focused international attention on the need to preserve what he calls the “lungs of the planet.”
Environmental concerns are also expected to be on 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, Francis 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.
Francis, who has stressed his desire for a “poor church for the poor,” wrote a book on corruption when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, and has never shied from using his foreign trips to demand political, business and civic leaders put the good of their people before personal interests.
While in Madagascar, Francis will visit a humanitarian organization, Akamasoa, launched by an Argentine priest in 1989 to tend to the poor in the peripheries of the country — much as the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio did in Buenos Aires where he is known as the “slum pope.”
The Rev. Pedro Opeka founded Akamasoa near the capital Antananarivo’s largest dump, and the organization now has built villages serving some 25,000 people with schools, housing and other services.
“I hope to touch his hand to receive his blessing,” said Marie Laurette Ralalanirina, 48, as she sewed flags that will be used as decoration when the pope visits Akamasoa. “I also would like the leaders of the country to use his visit to see us, the poor, because they have forgotten us until now.”
Opeka, who has been in Madagascar for a half-century, said Francis’ visit to Akamosoa would send an important message, given that when he first began his project, Madagascar’s poor had been completely abandoned.
“It was hell: there were jealousies, hatred, fighting and theft, all things because extreme poverty kills your soul,” he said. “Thirty years later, the pope is going to walk on this land where we have suffered. It’s a great comfort for us.”
Andrew Meldrum reported from Maputo, Mozambique. AP writer Laetitia Bezain contributed from Antanarivo, Madagascar.