Maputo – Pope Francis, on the first full day of his visit to Mozambique, heaped praise Thursday on a peace deal between government and rebels and offered solidarity to victims of two devastating cyclones.
His maiden visit to the poor southeast African country came a month after the government and the former rebel group Renamo, now the main opposition party, signed a historic treaty.
Their 16-year civil war devastated the former Portuguese colony before developing into a fitful truce, and Renamo had never completely disarmed.
In talks with President Filipe Nyusi, the pope expressed his “personal gratitude… for the efforts made in recent decades to ensure that peace is once more the norm.”
Reconciliation, he said, is “the best path to confront the difficulties and challenges that you face as a nation.”
He described the accord as “a landmark that we greet with the hope that it will prove decisive.”
The talks at the presidential palace were also attended by Renamo chief Ossufo Momade and other opposition leaders.
– Jihadist threat –
Nyusi thanked the Pope for his support and encouragement.
But he also warned that prospects for enduring peace were being threatened by a jihadist insurgency that erupted in northern Mozambique in 2017.
“The effective peace that we long for… has been threatened in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, where faceless evil-doers sow terror, kill, destroy and plunder the goods of defenseless populations,” said Nyusi.
Nyusi is hoping for a second term in office at general elections scheduled for October 15. He met the pope last year at the Vatican.
Renamo said the pope’s visit should be a spur to ending the tensions of the civil war.
“May his presence seal the peace and reconciliation we signed on August 6,” spokesman Jose Manteigas told AFP.
“(May) the pope’s profound message be a source of inspiration to all Mozambicans in ending the conflict, political persecution and the violation of human rights.”
Francis, the first pope to visit Mozambique since John Paul II in 1988, arrived on Wednesday evening to a rapturous welcome by waving and dancing crowds on the streets of Maputo.
His three-day trip to the disaster-prone country is the first on a tour of three African countries, including Madagascar and Mauritius.
Cyclone Idai smashed into the country in March, only to be followed by Cyclone Kenneth in April. More than 600 people were killed and the lives of hundreds of thousands of others were affected.
“I want you to know of my own participation in your anguish and suffering, and the commitment of the Catholic community to respond to this most difficult situation,” Francis said.
“Amid the catastrophe and desolation, I pray that, in God’s providence, constant concern will be shown by all those civil and social groups who make people their priority and are in a position to promote the necessary rebuilding.”
– Eusebio –
The pope also addressed an inter-religious group of young people, telling them not to be discouraged by personal and social challenges, citing the example of the country’s late top footballer, Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, who rose from rags to play for the Portuguese club Benfica.
Known as the “Black Panther”, Da Silva moved to Benfica when he was 19 and became a key figure when his squad won the 1962 European Cup, scoring twice in the 5-3 victory over Real Madrid in the final.
He won 11 league titles and five Portuguese Cups during a 15-year career with the Lisbon giants.
“The severe economic hardships of his family and the premature death of his father did not prevent him from dreaming; his passion for football made him persevere,” said the pope to 2,000 youths from various religions, including Muslim and Hindu.
Helia Antonio Pelembe, a 26-year-old Catholic, was happy that “all the religions were represented. He wants us to be together in order to achieve peace and reconciliation”.
The pope was to address a mass at the giant Zimpeto stadium later.
Expectations are high that he will address the issue of extremism in a country that traditionally is religiously tolerant. Brutal jihadist attacks in northern Mozambique have claimed more than 300 lives over two years and forced thousands from their homes.
Francis may also speak about climate change, a key topic for the pontiff.
According to the World Bank, Mozambique, with its more than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) of coastline along the Indian Ocean, is among the 10 most climate-threatened countries in the world.