ROSARIO, Argentina – Pope Francis was making cold calls again on Wednesday, this time to surprise a Brazilian born bishop who ministers in Mozambique amidst one of the world’s worst humanitarian situations.
“I received a call from Pope Francis that comforted me a lot,” said Bishop Luiz Fernando Lisboa of Pemba in a press conference.
Pemba is in Cabo Delgado, the northernmost region of the African country, on the border with Tanzania. The province was struck by a cyclone last year, is currently facing epidemics of malaria and cholera, and has a number of districts affected by a conflict between Muslim insurgents and the army. At least 250,00 people have been displaced by the fighting.
During this call to Lisboa, Francis expressed his closeness to the prelate and all the people of the Cabo Delgado region.
“He said that he is following the events in our province with great concern and that he is constantly praying for us. The Holy Father also told me that if there was anything else he could do, we should not hesitate to ask him. He is ready to walk with us,” the bishop said.
Lisboa then said that he had expressed his “deep appreciation” not only for the the pope’s telephone call, but also for the fact that Francis prayed for the region of Cabo Delgado and “its grave humanitarian crises” during his Easter Sunday Urbi et Orbi blessing on April 12.
“I told him that his reference to the humanitarian crisis in our province also made other people aware of our situation,” the bishop told reporters, recalling his conversation with the Argentine pope. “We began to see more congregations, some humanitarian organizations, individuals, both local and from abroad, coming to help us.”
“I said: Holy Father, you put Cabo Delgado on the world map,” the bishop said. “And he simply commented in Italian: ‘Che bello!’ (How beautiful!).”
Lisboa said that he’d also informed the pope of the situation in the port city of Mocimboa da Praia, that was occupied by jihadist terrorists linked with the Islamic State earlier this month.
Reports from Mozambique say that by August 12, government forces that were in the northern town of fled, many by boat, after Islamists stormed the port. The town is near the site of natural gas projects worth $60 billion.
Mozambican troops have been battling to regain control of Mocimboa da Praia, but Lisboa has been openly critical of the government’s inability to protect its citizens.
The call from Pope Francis to Lisboa came after Mozambique’s weekly O Jornal O Público” made wide-ranging claims about the Brazilian prelate, accusing him of inciting division and racism in his diocese; promoting violence and hatred; and disrespecting the country’s national symbols.
The article came out after Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi criticized “certain foreigners” for taking “lightly” the “suffering of those who protect them,” which observers said was at least in part directed at the Catholic bishop.
Lisboa’s diocese is some 125 miles from seized port city and the Church has long provided food and accommodation to those who have fled the violence to find refuge in Pemba.
Two religious sisters from Pemba have gone missing since the attacks, and when Lisboa shared this information with the pontiff, he promised to pray for them.
“When the time came to wrap up the call, the pope recalled his visit to Mozambique last year, and said that even as he traveled through our country, Cabo Delgado was very present in his thoughts,” Lisboa said. “And he encouraged me to contact Cardinal Michael Czerny for humanitarian assistance.”
Czerny, a Czechoslovakian-born Canadian cardinal, is the man tapped by Pope Francis to lead the migrants and refugees section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development,
“For my part, I assured the Holy Father of our closeness to his ministry through prayer. I told him that we pray for him every day. In response, he said to me in Spanish: Go ahead!” Lisboa said.
Earlier, speaking with the African edition of German news agency DW, Lisboa responded to the criticism against him made by pro-government journalists, saying that “people have a mistaken view of the work of the Church.”
“There are people who think that religious should only stay inside the church to pray,” he said. “We work with people, we are by their side, and especially those who suffer the most. That was the example that Jesus set and we cannot do otherwise. ”
According to Latifo Fonseca, a missionary in Pemba, the bishop is “calm,” despite having received death threats for his outspokenness in favor of the poor and marginalized in Cabo Delgado.
“In the face of slander, he can suffer as any human would, but he’s calm for the mission,” Fonseca told the Brazilian news agency VOA. “He knows that when in wanting to defend the little ones, he will suffer as he’s suffering.”
Fonseca stresses that the bishop has “a clear, calm conscience, suffering only; because our situation is not good because of the war, because of COVID and for displaced people.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma