Pope Francis urged respect for human rights in Sri Lanka as he began a two-nation Asia tour on the island Tuesday, bearing a message of peace and reconciliation after a long civil war. Pope Francis arrived in Sri Lanka on at the start of a weeklong Asian tour, saying the island nation can’t fully heal from a quarter-century of ethnic civil war without pursuing the truth about the injustices that were committed.
His visit, days after the surprise election of a new president, will focus on unity in a country still struggling to heal the wounds of a decades-long civil war that pitted government troops against Tamil separatist rebels.
The Argentine pope’s second visit to Asia will also take in the Philippines, a bastion of Christianity in the region, where he is set to attract one of the biggest gatherings ever for a head of the Catholic Church.
But in mostly Buddhist Sri Lanka, which has seen a rise in religious violence in recent years, he will focus on the role of the Church in a diverse society.
The Pope spoke at the international airport in Colombo, saying Sri Lanka needs to pursue the truth of what happened during its long civil war in order to consolidate peace and heal scars between religious communities.. “The great work of rebuilding must embrace improving infrastructures and meeting material needs, but also, and even more importantly, promoting human dignity, respect for human rights, and the full inclusion of each member of society,” said the Pope. He said that diversity was no longer seen as a threat, but as a source of enrichment and therefore people of Sri Lanka must be prepared to accept one another, to respect legitimate diversities, and learn to live as one family. “Whenever people listen to one another humbly and openly, their shared values and aspirations become all the more apparent.”
“The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth, not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity,” he said on arrival at Bandaranaike international airport. “The Pope, was greeted at Colombo’s main airport by the country’s new President Maithripala Sirisena.
Human rights are a hugely contentious issue in Sri Lanka, which has alienated the international community by refusing to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation into alleged wartime killings of civilians.
A smiling Pope Francis was met on the tarmac by Sri Lanka’s new President Maithripala Sirisena before meeting Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim leaders in Colombo. Sirisena, who took office only days ago, promised an independent domestic inquiry into the allegations of wartime rights abuses under his predecessor Mahinda Rajapakse.
In a speech he gave before the pope spoke, Sirisena said his government aims to promote “peace and friendship among our people after overcoming a cruel terrorist conflict. “We are a people who believe in religious tolerance and coexistence based on our centuries old heritage,” he said. A group of Muslim schoolgirls was among the flag-waving well-wishers at the airport to greet him, and traditional Sri Lankan dancers lined the red carpet.
Only around six percent of the country’s 20-million-strong population is Catholic, but the religion is seen as a unifying force because it includes people from both the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil ethnic groups.
Mr. Sirisena has pledged to protect religious freedoms and promised a new culture of tolerance on the island, which was devastated by a 37-year ethnic conflict that ended in 2009.
“All members of society must work together; all must have a voice,” said the pope, who was greeted by flag-waving well-wishers.
On Wednesday, the pope will hold a public mass at Colombo’s Galle Face seafront that is expected to attract around one million people during which he will canonise Sri Lanka’s first saint, a 17th century missionary.On Wednesday, Francis will canonize Sri Lanka’s first saint, the Rev. Giuseppe Vaz, a 17th century missionary credited with having revived the Catholic faith among both Sinhalese and Tamils amid persecution by Dutch colonial rulers, who were Calvinists.
He will also visit a small church in the jungle that was on the front line of the ethnic conflict, which killed around 100,000 people. The Our Lady of Madhu church in the mainly Tamil north provided sanctuary during the fighting, and is now a pilgrimage destination for Christians from across the ethnic divide.
The pope’s trip signals the huge importance the Vatican places on Asia and its potential for more followers. The region holds a special interest for Pope Francis, who as a young priest considered becoming a missionary in Japan.
On Thursday he will fly the Philippines one of the Church’s modern success stories, counting roughly 80 percent of the former Spanish colony’s 100 million people as Catholics. He will meet survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, which claimed 7,350 lives when it destroyed entire farming and fishing communities in 2013.
The pope will celebrate mass with tens of thousands of survivors at the airport in Tacloban, one of the worst-hit cities.
Religious violence has risen in Sri Lanka in recent years, with attacks on mosques and some churches by nationalist Buddhist groups who say minorities have undue influence on the island.
Pope Francis is the first pope to visit the country since John Paul II two decades ago. Buddhist monks boycotted his visit over controversial remarks John Paul made in his book “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”.
The Vatican says the pope will speak throughout his Asia trip on themes of the environment, poverty and family.