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Pope calls for justice in Sri Lanka


Pope Francis waves to people waiting on a road to welcome him on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka. (AP)

Pope Francis waves to people waiting on a road to welcome him on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka. (AP)

Pope Francis arrives in Sri Lanka at the start of his Asian tour (AP)

Pope Francis arrives in Sri Lanka at the start of his Asian tour (AP)


Pope Francis waves to people waiting on a road to welcome him on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka. (AP)

The Pope has brought calls for reconciliation and justice to Sri Lanka as he began an Asian tour, saying the island nation cannot fully heal from a quarter-century of brutal civil war without pursuing the truth about abuses.

The 78-year-old arrived in Colombo after an overnight flight from Rome and immediately spent nearly two hours under a scorching sun greeting dignitaries and well-wishers along the 18-mile route into town.

The effects were immediate: a weary and delayed Francis skipped a lunchtime meeting with Sri Lanka's bishops to rest before completing the rest of his gruelling day.

"The health of the Pope is good," Vatican spokesman the Rev Federico Lombardi said. "He was a little tired after the 28 kilometres under the sun, but now he has again his strength."

Francis is the first Pope to visit Sri Lanka since the government crushed a 25-year civil war by ethnic Tamil rebels demanding an independent Tamil nation because of perceived discrimination by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.

UN estimates say 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed during the war, which ended in 2009. Other reports suggest the toll could be much higher.

With 40 costumed elephants lining the airport road behind him and a 21-cannon salute booming over the tarmac, 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 did not specifically mention Sri Lanka's refusal to co-operate with a UN 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."

A 2011 UN report said up to 40,000 Tamil civilians could 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 Tamil Tiger rebels were accused of recruiting child soldiers and holding civilians as human shields and firing from among them.

A few months after the UN report was released, the government of long-time president Mahinda Rajapaksa released its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission findings, which concluded that Sri Lanka's military did not intentionally target civilians at the end of the war and that the rebels routinely violated international humanitarian law.

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

Mr Lombardi said the responsibility for finding the truth was Sri Lanka's alone and stressed that Francis had made clear that the goal of determining the truth is not to open old wounds.

Mr Sirisena, who was sworn in on Friday, told Francis in the airport welcoming 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 co-existence based on our centuries-old heritage," he said.

In a show of that co-existence, the Pope's welcome ceremony at Colombo's airport featured traditional dancers and drummers from both ethnic groups and a children's choir serenading him in both of Sri Lanka's languages.

Tamils, however, say they are still discriminated against, and human rights activists said the previous government was not serious about probing rights abuses.

The Vatican estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 people lined Francis's route from the airport, which he travelled entirely in his open-sided 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 cancelled a meeting with Sri Lanka's bishops in the afternoon after falling more than an hour behind schedule.

After resting, Francis met Mr Sirisena privately at the presidential palace in the late afternoon and then rallied to greet dozens of saffron-robbed Buddhist monks and representatives of Sri Lanka's other main religions.

At one point, he donned a saffron shawl over his shoulders, a traditional Tamil sign of honor.

"What is needed now is healing and unity, not further division and conflict," Francis told the audience. "It is my hope that inter-religious and ecumenical co-operation will demonstrate that men and women do not have to forsake their identity, whether ethnic or religious, in order to live in harmony with their brothers and sisters."

About 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist - most from the Sinhalese ethnic group. Another 13% are Hindu, most of them Tamil, and 10% are Muslim. Catholics make up less than 7% 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 of national unity.

PA Media