Pope Francis, followed by Mons. Guido Marini, Master of Pontifical Liturgical Ceremonies, right, celebrate Mass at the Monument Mary Queen of Peace, in Port Louis, Mauritius, Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. Francis has arrived in the Indian Ocean nation of Mauritius to celebrate its diversity, encourage its ethical development and honor a 19th century French missionary who ministered to freed slaves. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Pope honors Mauritius diversity, urges ethnical development

September 09, 2019 - 5:35 am

PORT LOUIS, Mauritius (AP) — 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.

Francis is in the Mauritian capital Port Louis for just a few hours to meet with government leaders on the final full day of his weeklong Africa trip.

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. Many resettled in the U.K. and have fought in British and international courts to return to the islands.

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.

It wasn't clear if Francis would raise the plight of the Chagos in his private talks with Mauritius' president and prime minister. He was, however, expected to flag concerns about corruption and other ills associated with Mauritius' growth into what some consider to be a global tax haven.

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