PORT LOUIS, MAURITIUS - Pope Francis visited the Indian Ocean nation of Mauritius on Monday to celebrate its diversity, encourage a more ethical development and honor a 19th century French missionary who ministered to freed slaves.
Thousands of Mauritians waved palm branches as Francis arrived in his popemobile to celebrate a Mass honoring the Rev. Jacques-Desire Laval. While Catholics represent less than a third of Mauritius' 1.3 million people, Laval is seen as a unifying figure for all Mauritians, most of whom are Hindu of Indian descent.
Francis was in the Mauritian capital Port Louis for just a few hours to honor Laval on his feast day and meet with government leaders on the final full day of his weeklong Africa trip.
Among the estimated 100,000 people attending the Mass was a 50-member delegation from the Chagos Islands, an Indian Ocean archipelago that includes the U.S. air base on Diego Garcia.
Earlier this year, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to demand that Britain, which held onto Chagos after granting Mauritius independence in 1968, ends its "colonial administration" and return Chagos to Mauritius. Britain has refused to do so, saying its presence on the archipelago is strategically important.
Britain evicted about 2,000 people from Chagos in the 1960s and 1970s so the U.S. military could build the air base at Diego Garcia.
On Monday, Chagos delegation leader Suzelle Baptiste said some of those evicted had met with Francis two years ago at the Vatican and explained their plight.
"For our community it is very important to be here to welcome the pope and at the same time we know that the pope knows about our cause so we are here to greet him in joy and to pray together with all Mauritian families," Baptiste said as delegation members, some of whom wore pins reading "Let us return," waited for Francis to arrive.
Their plight is likely to have struck a chord with the Argentine pope, who as archbishop of Buenos Aires spoke out forcefully against the British claim to the Falkland Islands, which Argentines call the Malvinas.
It wasn't clear if Francis would raise the case of the Chagos in his private talks with Mauritius' president and prime minister, though he mentioned the faithful from Chagos in a final prayer thanking pilgrims from across the region for coming to the Mass.
In his meetings with government authorities, Francis was expected to flag concerns about corruption and other ills associated with Mauritius' growth into a regional financial center that some consider a global tax haven. Transparency International has said that while Mauritius boasts one of Africa's highest per capita incomes, its growth into a financial center has come at a cost that was exposed in the "Panama Papers" and subsequent leaks about offshore financial instruments.
The government has called the tax haven allegations false and insisted that it abides by all international standards on transparency and sharing of financial information.
In his homily, Francis lamented that young Mauritians in particular haven't benefited from the country's strong economic growth and are left uncertain about their future and on the margins of society, where drugs are a persistent problem.
"Let us not allow those merchants of death rob the first fruits of this land!" Francis said, in an apparent reference to drug dealers.
He urged young people to look to Laval as a model of someone who spoke up for the voiceless. Laval, who was beatified in 1979 in the first beatification ceremony presided over by St. John Paul II, is hailed for having ministered to African slaves who had been freed but were treated as second-class citizens in Mauritius.
"Through his missionary outreach and his love, Father Laval gave to the Mauritian church a new youth, a new life that today we are asked to carry forward," Francis said.