Jan 11, 2015 1:59 AM

AP PHOTOS: Sri Lanka's Catholics hope to heal war's wounds

The Associated Press

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) On the road into the capital from the main airport, dozens of the faithful have turned out in recent days to clean and decorate the Catholic churches that Pope Francis will pass on his Tuesday drive into Colombo.

"It is a privilege to see him with our own eyes," said Sister Mary Cleophus, a nun and longtime teacher who was hanging decorative cloths of white and yellow the papal colors at Saints Peter and Paul Church.

Like many in the Indian Ocean island nation, she had feared last week's elections, which pushed aside longtime President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a stunning upset. Politics has often meant violence in Sri Lanka, and Rajapaksa had rarely been subtle about amassing his immense power.

But when he was defeated by a former ally, Maithripala Sirisena, he quietly stepped down Friday morning. All went peacefully.

"It is a miracle," said Cleophus. "We had doubts."

Catholics make up less than 7 percent of Sri Lanka's population.

But the Vatican hopes that the Catholics can help heal the wounds of the country's 25-year civil war, during which the Tiger rebels fought to create a separate homeland in the north for the minority Tamils, who are mostly Hindu. The war came to a bloody end in 2009, and since then many Tamils say they remain forgotten by the central government, which is dominated by the country's ethnic Sinhala majority, which is overwhelmingly Buddhist.

Sri Lanka's Catholics, though, come from both the Tamil and the Sinhala communities, making them a natural bridge between the two sides.

"I was a teacher for 20 years and we had Buddhist, Muslim and Tamils in our schools," said the nun. "We had no problems."

Now, "every community is interested in the pope," she said. "It is a great thing."


Follow AP photographers and photo editors on Twitter: http://apne.ws/15Oo6jo


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