Pope Francis said on Tuesday Britain should comply with a U.N. resolution and return a chain of islands it holds in the Indian Ocean to Mauritius, including one rented to the United States for the Diego Garcia airbase.
In greetings to various delegations after a Mass on Monday in Mauritius, Francis referred to the archipelago and used the name Chagos Islands, which Britain rules as British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).
Authorities saw the mention as a boost for their claim and in an address to the pope on Monday night Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth thanked him for his interest.
Britain detached the Chagos Islands from Mauritius before Mauritius gained independence in 1968. London then expelled the population of the islands, then numbering about 2,000 people, to build the airbase on Diego Garcia.
Asked by a Mauritian reporter on the plane returning from a three-nation trip to Africa how he could help the people of Chagos go back home, Francis said:
"When we recognise international organisations, such as the International Court of Justice in The Hague or the United Nations, and give them the capacity to judge internationally, when they speak, if we are (part of) humanity, we must obey."
"It is true that not all things that are right for humanity are also right for our pockets (financial interests) but international institutions must be obeyed," he said.
Last February, the International Court of Justice ruled that the Chagos islanders had been evicted unlawfully and told Britain to give back control over the islands to Mauritius.
In May, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly demanded that Britain give up control over the Chagos Islands within six months. Such resolutions are non-binding.
"If there is an internal dispute or conflict among countries, you go there (the U.N.) to resolve it like brothers, like civil people," Francis said.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Frances Kerry)