Pope Francis arrived in Mauritius on Monday on the final stop of a three-nation Africa tour where he is expected to celebrate the diversity and tolerance of one of the continent’s richest, most stable nations.
Thousands of faithful gathered in the capital Port-Louis, some before dawn, waiting for the Argentine pontiff to address the small Indian Ocean island, a melting pot of religions and ethnic groups.
The pope will celebrate mass at the Mary Queen of Peace Monument, the same hillside location where John Paul II celebrated the eucharist during the last papal visit to Mauritius in 1989.
“More than 3,500 of us came from Reunion” island — about 175 kilometres (110 miles) — from Mauritius, said Josette, who is among those awaiting the pope.
Giant screens have been put up in Port Louis to allow devotees to watch the papal mass, and billboards adorned with Francis’ image have sprung up across the coastal city.
“It is very important for us to meet the pope. It is an occasion,” said Genevieve, 47, from Mauritius.
Mauritius comprises four volcanic islands and lies roughly 1,800 kilometres (1,100 miles) off the eastern coast of Africa.
The population of 1.3 million is predominantly Hindu but has sizeable Christian and Muslim minorities.
About 30 percent of Mauritius is Christian, with most being Catholic.
The island nation was briefly colonised by the Dutch, French and the British and since independence in 1968, has developed from a poor, agriculture-based economy, to one of Africa’s wealthiest nations.
It is best known for its position as a global tax haven and idyllic tourist beach destination.
The pope is on the last stop of his tour which has taken him to Mozambique and Madagascar.
Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth said the Pope would encounter a “true model of pluralism” during his visit.
“Our cultural diversity has never prevented us from creating an environment conducive to dialogue, understanding and peace,” he said.
“It will not be a visit of Pope Francis to the Catholics but to the Mauritian people in all its religious diversity,” said Cardinal Maurice Piat, Bishop of Port Louis, ahead of the papal visit.
Francis’ visit coincides with the 155th anniversary of the death of Father Jacques Desire Laval, a French priest who died in Mauritius in 1864 and was beatified in 1979.
The Pope will visit the mausoleum of Laval, known as the “Apostle of Mauritius” for his missionary work.
Every year about 100,000 pilgrims visit the tomb of Laval, northeast of Port Louis, on the night of September 8-9, to commemorate his death.
This year it was brought forward to September 7-8 to accommodate the Pope’s visit.
The pontiff will also visit the official residence of President Barlen Vyapoory, whose role is largely titular, and will also meet with Jugnauth.
Mauritius has begun planting some 200,000 trees ahead of the Pope’s visit. It is expected Francis will be offering a blessing for the island’s natural environment.
According to the World Bank, one of the greatest challenges for the island is adapting to the effects of climate change — which has worsened tropical storms and floods affecting it.