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Jan 13, 2015 4:04 AM

Pope arrives in Sri Lanka and backs search for wartime truth

The Associated Press

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) Pope Francis brought calls for reconciliation as well as justice as he arrived Tuesday in Sri Lanka 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 abuses that were committed.

In a show of ethnic coexistence, the pope's welcoming ceremony at Colombo's airport featured traditional dancers and drummers from both majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil ethnic groups, as well as a children's choir serenading him in both of Sri Lanka's languages as well as Italian and English.

With 40 elephants dressed in colorful costumes lining the airport road behind him, Francis said that finding true peace after so much bloodshed "can only be done by overcoming evil with good, and by cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace."

He didn't specifically mention Sri Lanka's refusal to cooperate with a U.N. investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the final months of the war. But he said: "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."

Tamil rebels fought a 25-year civil war to demand an independent Tamil nation after decades of perceived discrimination by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. U.N. estimates say 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed during the course of the war, which ended in 2009; other reports suggest the toll could be much higher.

Sri Lanka's new president, Maithripala Sirisena, has promised to launch a domestic inquiry into wartime abuses, but he has also pledged to protect everyone who contributed to the defeat of Tamil Tiger separatists from international legal action.

A 2011 U.N. report said up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians may have been killed in the last months of the civil war, and accused both sides of serious human rights violations. It said the government was suspected of deliberately shelling civilians and hospitals and preventing food and medicine from getting to civilians trapped in the war zone. The rebels were accused of recruiting child soldiers and holding civilians as human shields and firing from among them.

A few months after the U.N. report was released, the government of longtime President Mahinda Rajapaksa released its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission findings, which concluded that Sri Lanka's military didn't intentionally target civilians at the end of the war and that ethnic rebels routinely violated international humanitarian law.

Sirisena, who was sworn in Friday after an election upset, told Francis in the airport welcome ceremony that 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.

Tamils, however, say they are still discriminated against, and human rights activists say the government isn't serious about probing rights abuses.

In his speech, Francis said it wasn't enough for the government to build infrastructure and meet material needs of Sri Lanka's people. "The great work of rebuilding," he said, must embrace "promoting human dignity, respect for human rights and the full inclusion of each member of society."

Thousands of people lined Francis' 28-kilometer (17-mile) route in from the airport, which he traveled entirely in his open-topped popemobile. While some who had staked out positions since dawn were frustrated that he sped past so quickly, Francis took so long greeting well-wishers that he canceled a meeting with Sri Lanka's bishops in the afternoon after falling more than an hour behind schedule.

"This is like Jesus Christ himself coming to Sri Lanka!" marveled Ranjit Solis, 60, a retired engineer. He recalled that Pope Paul VI only spent two hours in Sri Lanka in 1970, while St. John Paul II spent a day in 1975. "The current pope is coming for three days! He serves the poor and is concerned about poor countries. It's a great thing."

Aside from the airport welcome ceremony, Francis' other main event Tuesday was a meeting with representatives from Sri Lanka's main religions.

Some 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist most from the Sinhalese ethnic group. Another 13 percent are Hindu, most of them Tamil, and some 10 percent are Muslim. Catholics make up less than 7 percent of the island nation's 20 million people, but the church counts both Sinhalese and Tamils as members and sees itself as a strong source for national unity.

Francis is expected to call for greater interfaith dialogue amid a surge in anti-Muslim violence by extremist Buddhists.

"It is a blessing and will be helpful for inter-religious friendship," said Rev. Wimalananda, a young Buddhist monk, who was out on the street to welcome Francis.

Francis arrived just days after Rajapaksa was upset in an election he had called. The victor, Sirisena, had defected from the ruling party in November in a surprise move and won the election by capitalizing on Rajapaksa's unpopularity among ethnic and religious minorities.

"This is a good opportunity to unify the country after a war and bring together a society divided with an election," said another Francis watcher on the road in from the airport, Saman Priyankara. "It will be a strength to the new government at a time we are free from an autocracy and on a new path."

On Wednesday, Francis will canonize Sri Lanka's first saint, the Rev. Joseph Vaz, a 17th-century missionary from India who is credited with having revived the Catholic faith among both Sinhalese and Tamils amid persecution by Dutch colonial rulers, who were Calvinists.

Later in the day he flies into Tamil territory to pray at a shrine beloved by both Sinhalese and Tamil faithful.

On Thursday he heads to the Philippines, the largest Roman Catholic country in Asia and third-largest in the world, for the final leg of the journey.

There he'll comfort victims of the devastating 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7,300 people dead or missing, displaced some 4 million and turned a huge densely populated region into a wasteland.

Millions of Filipinos are expected to turn out for his events, possibly surpassing the record 5 million who turned out for the last papal visit: St. John Paul II in 1995. Themes Francis is expected to raise are related to the family, poverty and the environment.


Associated Press Writer Krishan Francis contributed to this report.


Follow Nicole Winfield on Twitter at twitter.com/nwinfield


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