Pope Francis arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday calling on the country’s people to uncover the truth of what happened during its bloody civil war as part of a healing process between religious communities.
The pontiff arrived just days after Sri Lankans voted out the country’s authoritarian leader Mahinda Rajapakse who had steadfastly refused to allow an international inquiry into alleged war crimes committed during the final days of the country’s thirty-year Civil War.
“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,” he said, draped in a long garland of yellow and white roses.
Francis was speaking at Bandaranaike international airport in Colombo, where he was met by newly-elected President Maithripala Sirisena, troupes of dancers and a children’s choir.
Sirisena said the visit was a blessing for his new government.
The pontiff departed past a long line of costumed elephants, reaching their trunks towards his open-topped white jeep, which briefly came to a halt surrounded by crowds lining the road. The motorcade’s slow progress meant he arrived late in the capital, Colombo, and cancelled an afternoon meeting with bishops.
Francis is the first pope to visit Sri Lanka in 20 years.
Fighting between the mainly Hindu Tamils and the and mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority ended in 2009 with a crushing defeat for the Tamils. A 2011 U.N. estimate put the death toll from the final army assault at up to 40,000 civilians.
Pope Francis had first-hand experience of devastating civil strife as a priest in his native Argentina during its “Dirty War”. A subsequent 50,000-page truth report revealed shocking details of kidnappings, rape and torture by the military junta.
The 78-year-old will spend two days in Sri Lanka before heading to the Philippines as part of a trip aimed at shoring-up the Church’s presence in developing nations. The week-long tour is his second to Asia.
The Pope carried a message of inter-faith dialogue, chiming with the new government’s push for religious harmony.
“My government is promoting peace and friendship among our people after overcoming a cruel terrorist conflict. We have people who believe in religious tolerance and coexistence based on centuries old religious heritage,” Sirisena said.
However, Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, was doubtful the new government would agree to a U.N. inquiry into the end of the war. Sirisena was acting defence minister as the war wound up.
“Sirisena has also said he is not going to back an international investigation,” said Ganguly.
About 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists. Hindus make up about 13 percent and Muslims 10 percent. Catholics are about 7 percent, split between ethnic Sinhalese and Tamils.
Francis will canonize Sri Lanka’s first Catholic saint on Wednesday, and visit a pilgrimage site that was shelled in 1999.
Francis called for a more inclusive society in Sri Lanka, in comments that seemed directed at former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
“The great work of rebuilding must embrace improving infrastructures and meeting material needs, but also, and even more importantly, promoting human dignity, respect for human rights, and the full inclusion of each member of society,” he said, speaking under the hot morning sun.
Rajapaksa is feted as a hero for ending three decades of war. He also presided over a period of fast economic growth and infrastructure reconstruction.
However, his rule became increasingly authoritarian with widespread nepotism and corruption as well as growing repression of religious minorities and critics.
Rajapaksa’s rule coincided with isolated attacks led by hardline Buddhist monks against churches and other Christian centres.