SÃO PAULO – After serving as a missionary in Africa for 20 years, Archbishop Luiz Fernando Lisboa says he will “work for unity and communion” in his new diocese in Brazil.

From 2013, the Brazilian-born prelate was Bishop of Bemba in the Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique. For nearly four years, the northern province has experienced an insurgency by Islamist groups which has led to the deaths of over 3,500 people and the displacement of over 600,000 others.

Lisboa has been one of the strongest voices to denounce the conflict, and has helped bring international attention to the issues.

Since 2019, the insurgents have been claiming to be connected to the Islamic State (ISIS), but the motivation of the insurgents haven’t been clearly identified.

According to Lisboa, the conflict is directly connected to Cabo Delgado’s rich natural resources.

“Other wars are being fought in Africa over oil and minerals. But the humanitarian crisis here is becoming uncontrollable,” Lisboa told Crux.

The Mozambican government took years to acknowledge that an armed conflict was taking place, and the Pemba bishop caused waves by repeatedly writing and talking to the press about the people who had to flee the northern war zones, leaving their houses and belongings behind in order to move to Pemba and other districts in the south of Cabo Delgado.

Pope Francis is pictured in an undated photo greeting then-Bishop Luiz Lisboa of Pemba, Mozambique. (Credit: CNS photo/Vatican Media.)

Under Lisboa, the Diocese of Pemba has played a central role in the coordination of relief in the province. The Church has been distributing food and medicine, providing shelter, and helping to transport refugees to different districts.

Caritas organizations from around the world have made donations to the diocese, and even Pope Francis has sent money to Cabo Delgado.

Indeed, the pontiff’s attention to Lisboa’s pleas about the crisis was a turning point for the international community.

“After the pope mentioned the war in Cabo Delgado [in the 2020 Easter Urbi et Orbi message], many international organizations started to help Mozambique. The European Union also debated the problem,” Lisboa said.

The prelate was invited to tell members of the European Parliament about the humanitarian emergency and the EU offered help.

“After that, the Mozambican government officially asked the EU to intervene. We’re waiting for concrete developments of such conversations,” he added.

Pope Francis later telephoned Lisboa in August of 2020 to speak about the situation.

Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi has been highly critical of Lisboa, due to the bishop’s criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis, and he has been the subject of a defamation campaign perpetrated by pro-government journalists.

However, after the pontiff’s telephone call to Lisboa, the president met with the prelate to smooth things over.

However, problems persisted in the diocese. In addition to the insurgency, Cabo Delgado has been hit by several natural disasters, a cholera epidemic, and now COVID-19.

“Over the past few years, the region has faced cyclones, a cholera epidemic and the war. Now, the cases of COVID-19 are growing more and more every day,” the archbishop told Crux.

At the beginning of February, Francis transferred Lisboa to the Diocese of Cachoeiro do Itapemirim in the southeast of Brazil and granted him the personal title archbishop.

In Brazil, Lisboa will face a politically polarized reality, in which the Church – both the Brazilian episcopate and Pope Francis himself – is seen by many of President Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters as being “leftist.”

“I spent two decades in Africa, but I never ceased to follow the events in Brazil. I’ll always work for unity and communion. But it’s unacceptable for someone who’s part of the Church to repudiate all aspects of the Second Vatican Council or to criticize the Pope,” he told Crux.

In Pemba, Bishop António Juliasse Sandramo, an auxiliary of Maputo, has been appointed diocesan administrator.

“I don’t believe the assistance currently reaching Cabo Delgado is enough. Bishop Lisboa has shown that the local necessities are much larger than it’s possible to offer now. Suffering will grow bigger if we don’t get extra help,” he told Crux.

Bishop António Juliasse Sandramo in an undated photo. (Credit: Courtesy to Crux.)

Sandramo has experienced war since his childhood, growing up near the Zimbabwe border during its war of liberation in the 1970’s and then living through Mozambique’s own 1977-1992 civil war.

“One day my house was raided, and I ran away. A soldier fired toward me, but I wasn’t hit. I had to hide in the woods. I experienced all that and I know what the civilians are facing,” he said.

Sandramo said he hopes that the government will assume more relief operations in the region.

“The diocese will thus be able to launch new actions,” he said. But his biggest wish is that the conflict stops, and the people cease to suffer.

Lisboa said that despite his move to Brazil, he’ll keep connected to Pemba.

“A diocese can be considered mature only when it has a missionary nature. I want to deepen such dimension in Cachoeiro do Itapemirim. If there are candidates to go to Africa, I’ll give them all support needed. We must share what we have even when it’s not much,” he said.

He noted that one of the regional divisions of the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference has been supporting the Diocese of Pemba for years.

“It maintains nine Brazilian missionaries in Pemba, providing them cars and a house. It also organized funding campaigns and sent help to Cabo Delgado’s refugees,” he explained.

One of his ideas is to welcome Mozambican seminarians to Brazil to help with their education, since both countries speak Portuguese.

He also said that he’ll never stop worrying about the events in Cabo Delgado.

“I consider Mozambique to be my second home. We cannot stay here only watching as the people in Cabo Delgado live in such outrageous conditions,” Lisboa said.