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, Francis is expected to endorse the new August 1 accord and urge its full implementation when he meets with government authorities on Thursday, his first full day in the region.
He arrived on Wednesday evening but has 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 October 15.
Mozambique’s 15-year civil war, which ended with a 1992 peace deal, killed an estimated one million people and devastated the former Portuguese colony.
The permanent ceasefire signed on August 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 Mr Muagura.
“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.
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 day-long stop in Mauritius before returning to Rome on September 10.