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



Colombo: Pope Francis arrived in Sri Lanka Tuesday at the start of a six-day Asian visit which is expected to draw huge crowds.

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.

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.

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

The Pope’s trip, which comes five months after a tour of South Korea, is being seen as an attempt to shore up support for the region’s millions of Catholics.

Before departing on Monday, he said the visit reflected his “pastoral concern” for the people of the region, according to the Reuters news agency.

Large crowds of people lined the streets of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, on Tuesday to greet his motorcade, reported bbc.com .

The Pope is keen to bring a message of reconciliation to Sri Lanka, and help heal the wounds of a long and bitter civil war.

He arrives to meet the new Sri Lankan president, who unexpectedly won the snap election after the island’s unpopular President Rajapaksa conceded defeat.

Just under 10 percent of the population are Catholic – but they include both the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, offering Pope Francis the chance to travel to the “Our Lady of Madhu” shrine, which is revered by both, to bring his words of peace.

Around 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, with 13 percent Hindus and 10 percent 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.

However, 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 in Sri Lanka to seek partners in peace, so that all religions can stand united against any further violence or intimidation by religious extremists.

In the Philippines organisers are expecting one of the biggest crowds ever for a papal visit when Pope Francis conducts an open-air mass in the capital Manila.

Church officials say his visit to the archipelago nation will focus on “mercy and compassion” following a deadly 2013 typhoon, reports the AFP news agency.

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