Pope Francis arrived in the Indian Ocean nation of Mauritius to celebrate its diversity and honour a 19th century French missionary who ministered to freed slaves.The Pope also expressed concern during his address about growing drug use among the youth on the paradise island.

Throngs of cheering faithful waving palm fronds lined the streets of Port Louis as the popemobile shuttled the Argentine pontiff to the hilltop Mary Queen of Peace Monument where he delivered his mass. Organisers estimate 100,000 attended the service during the first papal visit since the one by John Paul II in 1989.

While the island is a beacon of stability and relative prosperity, Pope Francis honed in on the struggles of the youth, who face growing inequality, unemployment and the scourge of drug abuse. ‘It is a hard thing to say, but, despite the economic growth your country has known in recent decades, it is the young who are suffering the most.

‘They suffer from unemployment, which not only creates uncertainty about the future, but also prevents them from believing that they play a significant part in your shared history,’ said the pope.  ‘Uncertainty about the future makes them feel that they are on the margins of society. It leaves them vulnerable and helpless before new forms of slavery in this 21st century.’ ‘Let us not allow those who deal in death to rob the first fruits of this land,’ he said.

According to a Mauritius Drug Observatory report in 2018, the smuggling and use of drugs such as heroin, cannabis, cocaine and methamphetamine, has grown in recent years. Some waited for the pope from before dawn, and many faithful were dressed in the yellow and white of the Vatican flag.

Giant screens were 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. Mauritius comprises four volcanic islands and lies roughly 1,100 miles off the eastern coast of Africa. The population of 1.3million is predominantly Hindu but has sizeable Christian and Muslim minorities.

About 30 per cent of Mauritius is Christian, with most being Catholic. The island was uninhabited when first visited by explorers in the Middle Ages, and was later briefly colonised by the Dutch, French and the British. Now citizens have multi-cultural roots, from India, China, Europe, Africa and elsewhere.

Since independence in 1968, Mauritius 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.

General unemployment is low compared to the rest of the continent at 6.9 percent in 2018 according to the World Bank, but is high among the youth at 22 percent and inequality is seen to be rising. The pope is on the last stop of his tour which has taken him to Mozambique and Madagascar, two of the world’s poorest nations.

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, to commemorate his death. This year it was brought forward to September 7-8 to accommodate the Pope’s visit.

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