Pope Francis greets Sri Lankan religious leaders Tuesday in Colombo (Credit: ucanews.com)
Pope Francis on Tuesday called on leaders of various religions in Sri Lanka to “denounce acts of violence " and seek true reconciliation after decades of ethnic conflict.
"For the sake of peace, religious beliefs must never be allowed to be abused in the cause of violence and war," the pontiff said during an interreligious meeting with Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian leaders.
Pope Francis arrived in Colombo on Tuesday for a seven-day trip in Asia that will also bring him to the Philippines.
The pontiff noted that in mainly Buddhist Sri Lanka, which has seen a rise in religious violence in recent years, there is a "particular significance and urgency" for interreligious and ecumenical relations.
"For too many years the men and women of this country have been victims of civil strife and violence. What is needed now is healing and unity, not further conflict and division," the pontiff said.
He said that for dialogue to be effective, "it must be grounded in a full and forthright presentation of our respective convictions".
The pope said he reaffirms the Catholic Church's "sincere respect" for the traditions and beliefs of different religions.
Bishop Cletus Chandrasiri Perera of Ratnapura said the meeting is "no doubt a sacred and unique event which goes down in the history of Sri Lanka".
"You have challenged us by your unassuming, untriumphalistic, simple and humble lifestyle," Perera told the pontiff.
Pope Francis expressed hope that his visit would help to encourage and deepen various forms of interreligious and ecumenical cooperation.
He said the initiatives "provided opportunities for dialogue, which is essential if we are to know, understand and respect one another".
"If we are honest in presenting our convictions, we will be able to see more clearly what we hold in common," he said.
Venerable Banagala Upatissa Thero, chairman of the Mahabodhi Society, said it was “appropriate” that Pope Francis had called for “reconciliation among religions and ethnic groups”.
“It will help to bring about peace among religions. It will help in doing away with hatred among religious group. It is a great opportunity to show the world that Sri Lanka is close to preserving unity among all people.”
“Religious leaders have a very big role to play” in promoting peace and harmony in Sri Lanka, he added.
However, Godfrey Yogarajah, General Secretary of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance (NCEASL), pointed to the high number of recent attacks by radical Buddhists on mosques and evangelical churches as a key reason that interreligious cooperation is needed in the tiny island nation.
“The perpetrators were acting with impunity. Now a new government is established and there is hope for a new tomorrow,” he said.
Yogarajah also called for a more fruitful dialogue between the Catholic and Evangelical Church.
“Evangelical churches are asking the Catholic Church for more dialogues, but [have been] refused [in the past]. If there are irritants we have to discuss and solve the problems,” he said. “We must first solve our problems between the Catholic Church and Evangelical Church before we go to build harmony among all other religions.”
Riyaz Sally, chairman of the Davatagaha mosque in Colombo, welcomed the pope’s call for religious and ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka.
“We [Muslims] always welcome a link between religious leaders in this country as it is the right way to bring about peace in [Sri Lanka],” he said.
In his address upon his arrival in Colombo on Tuesday, the leader of the Catholic Church called for the "pursuit of truth" in the "process of healing" the wounds of almost three decades of ethnic war in the country.
He said the pursuit of truth is "a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity."
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 (LTTE) 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 as well as the LTTE of abuses including arbitrary detentions and forced disappearances.
The pope said that the "inability to reconcile differences and disagreements" among various groups has given rise to further ethnic and religious tensions.
He urged the religious leaders 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.
On Wednesday, Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Joseph Vaz, who was born in Goa, India, in 1651 but chose to work in Sri Lanka amid persecution of Catholics by Dutch colonial rulers, who were Calvinists.
Vaz is credited with having revived the Catholic faith in the country, using disguises and learning the local Sinhala and Tamil languages to meet secretly with underground Catholics. He died in 1711.
St. John Paul II beatified Vaz during his 1995 visit to Colombo, the first major step in his sainthood process.