Pope Francis (right) walks with Sri Lankan President Mathripala Sirisena after arriving in the island nation on Tuesday (Photo by ucanews.com)
Pope Francis on Tuesday called for the "pursuit of truth" in the "process of healing" the wounds of almost three decades of ethnic war in Sri Lanka.
"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," the pontiff said in his arrival speech in Colombo on Tuesday.
"It is no easy task to overcome the bitter legacy of injustices, hostility, and mistrust left by the conflict," Pope Francis said.
An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people died in the 26-year Sri Lankan civil war that erupted in 1983 when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam launched an insurgency aimed at creating an independent Tamil state in the north and the east of the country.
The Sri Lankan military ended the conflict in 2009 when it declared victory over the Tamil Tigers but not before international human rights groups accused government forces of abuses including arbitrary detentions and forced disappearances.
Pope Francis said the highlight of his visit to the South Asia island nation is the canonization of the Blessed Joseph Vaz who rebuilt the Catholic Church on the island during the Dutch occupation.
The pontiff, however, said his visit is also meant "to confirm the desire of the Catholic community to be an active participant in the life of this society".
He noted that the "inability to reconcile differences and disagreements" among various groups has given rise to further ethnic and religious tensions.
Moving on, said the pope, "can only be done by overcoming evil with good and by cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace".
He urged various religious groups to play a role in the process of reconciliation and rebuilding, which includes respect for human rights.
"All must be free to express their concerns, their needs, their aspirations and their fears," Pope Francis said.
Pope Francis is scheduled to meet Tuesday evening with Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian leaders in an "interreligious dialogue" where he is expected to reiterate his call for healing and unity.
Pope Francis arrives in Sri Lanka (ucanews.com)
Pope Francis was received at the airport by President Mathripala Sirisena, who was elected only days ago in a fiercely contested election that saw incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa lose his bid for an unprecedented third term. As the first head of state to meet Sirisena, Pope Francis hailed Sri Lanka for its religious diversity and cultural heritage before taking pains to call for peace.
Traditional Sri Lankan dancers and drummers lined the red carpet, and around 50 baby elephants dressed in brightly-colored jackets greeted his arrival.
Along the 35 kilometer road leading to Colombo, thousands gathered waving white and yellow flags and cheering as the papal procession passed by.
Only around seven percent of the country's 20 million people are Catholic, but the religion is seen as a unifying force because it includes people from both the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil ethnic groups.
Tamils gathered in the crowd said they were particularly touched by the pope’s early statements.
“We heard over the radio that [the] pope urged political leaders to respect human rights in the country… I was very proud he addressed our agony,” said Dina Maheshwari, a 55-year–old Tamil Hindu teacher who traveled several hundred kilometers with her family and friends to see the pope.
“We have still not been accepted as equal citizens in this country and we fear to say we are Tamils.”
Mathew Fernando, a 65-year-old Catholic from the Western coast of Sri Lanka, said the visit is coming at a crucial juncture and could be the key to reconciliation.
“He is coming to Sri Lanka in a period when some religious extremist groups have made critical comments on Christians and Muslims. [But] we can see even Buddhist people have come to welcome the pope,” he said.
Rights monitors said they hoped Pope Francis would use his platform to push for a government-opposed UN inquiry into war crimes.
“I'm glad that the pope stressed the importance of truth seeking, and that it's essential for reconciliation and justice, and that it should not be seen as reopening of old wounds,” said rights activist Ruki Fernando, who said he hoped the pope would push for government involvement.
Additional reporting by AFP