12:38 pm - Tuesday November 3, 2015

Pope Francis lands in Sri Lanka for ‘mission of mercy’

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Pope Francis has called for respect for human rights, inclusivity, and the “pursuit of truth” as he started a six-day Asian tour in Sri Lanka.

The pontiff, who will later travel to the Philippines, plans to celebrate open-air masses during his trip.

It is the first papal visit to Sri Lanka since the end of a four-decade civil war in 2009.

The country’s new president has promised an end to growing repression of religious minorities.

Speaking on the tarmac of Colombo’s international airport shortly after he landed, the Pope said that peace could be found by “cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace”.

Rebuilding Sri Lanka was more than just improving infrastructure, he said, “but also, and even more importantly, promoting human dignity, respect for human rights, and the full inclusion of each member of society”.

He also said that the “pursuit of truth” was important, “not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity”.

Sri Lanka has seen strife between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese. The separatist rebels of the Tamil Tigers fought for decades for independence, citing discrimination by the government, and the civil war ended in 2009. The United Nations said both sides committed atrocities against civilians.ust under 10% of Sri Lanka’s population are Catholic – but they include both Sinhalese and Tamils. Around 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, with 13% Hindus and 10% Muslims.

During the last papal visit 20 years ago, Pope John Paul II was boycotted by Buddhist leaders. But on this visit, the Pope is expected to hold a multi-faith prayer meeting which should include moderate Buddhist representatives.

The BBC’s religious affairs correspondent Caroline Wyatt says Buddhist fundamentalism has grown as a force in Sri Lanka since the last papal visit, with some waging a violent campaign against Muslims on the island.

Pope Francis wants to encourage the local church to seek partners in peace, so that all religions can stand united against any further violence or intimidation by religious extremists, says our correspondent.

It is a time of significant change in Sri Lanka, where Maithripala Sirisena took office as president on Friday.

He ended the decade-long rule of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a period which critics said had been marred by increasing corruption and authoritarianism.

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