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Jan 12, 2015 11:38 PM

Pope arrives in Sri Lanka at start of Asian tour

The Associated Press

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) Pope Francis arrived in Sri Lanka Tuesday 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 truth for the injustices committed.

Francis didn't refer specifically to Sri Lanka's refusal to cooperate with a U.N. investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the final months of the war. A 2011 U.N. report said as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed, and that both sides committed serious human rights violations.

Francis, 78, delivered the speech on the tarmac of Colombo's international airport, where he was welcomed under sunny skies by Sri Lanka's new president, Maithripala Sirisena, who was sworn in Friday after a major electoral upset. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and other church leaders were on hand as well.

The pope arrived to a colorful welcome ceremony, complete with traditional drummers and dancers from both the Sinhalese and Tamil groups, and a children's choir singing a song of welcome in both languages of Sri Lanka as well as English and Italian.

Francis was seeking to bring a message of reconciliation to Sri Lanka during the first trip by a pope to the nation since the end of the conflict in 2009.

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

In his speech, Francis said it wasn't easy for Sri Lankans to overcome the "bitter legacy" of injustice and hostilities after so many years of conflict. 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 said.

But he added: "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."

Tamils still claim discrimination by the Sinhalese and human rights activists have said the government isn't serious about probing abuses by its own armed forces, accused of having targeted hospitals and blocking food and medicine in a strategy of war. The U.N. report, for its part, found that the rebels were accused of recruiting child soldiers and holding civilians as human shields and firing from among them.

Francis arrived just days after the country's longtime president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was upset in an election he had called. The victor, Sirisena, but 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.

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.

Francis has a busy first day, including an airport arrival speech and a meeting with the country's bishops. After his arrival speech, his other main events Tuesday were a meeting with the country's bishops and an afternoon meeting with representatives of the country's major religious groups.

There, he's expected to call for greater dialogue among the country's Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Catholics amid a surge in anti-Muslim violence by fundamentalist Buddhists. Sinhalese are mostly Buddhist while Tamils are mostly Hindu. 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.

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.

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 second and 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.


Follow Nicole Winfield on Twitter at twitter.com/nwinfield


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