MAPUTO, Mozambique (AP) — Pope Francis opened a three-nation pilgrimage to southern Africa on Wednesday 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, Francis is expected to endorse the new Aug. 1 accord and urge its full implementation when he meets with government authorities on Thursday, his first full day in the region. He arrived Wednesday evening but had no public events scheduled after his brief airport welcome ceremony that featured traditional drums, dance and ululating singers.
During the flight to Maputo from Rome, Francis said he hoped that the trip “will bear fruits.”
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 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 where the opposition once held sway, 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 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.”
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.
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 is likely to raise those concerns in Mozambique, as well as on the second leg of his trip in Madagascar, where deforestation is threatening ecosystems and wildlife that are unique to the Indian Ocean island nation.
Francis also makes a daylong stop in Mauritius before returning to Rome Sept. 10.
AP writer Andrew Meldrum contributed from Maputo, Mozambique.