Pope: Only truth can heal Sri Lanka

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Published: Tuesday 13th January 2015 by The News Editor

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Pope Francis has said Sri Lanka cannot heal fully from a quarter-century of ethnic civil war without pursuing truth for the injustices committed.

Francis, speaking in Colombo at the start of a week-long Asian tour, did not however refer specifically to Sri Lanka’s refusal to co-operate with a United Nations investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the final months of the war.

A 2011 UN 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 new president Maithripala Sirisena, who was sworn in on Friday after a major electoral upset. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and other church leaders were also on hand.

The Pope arrived to a colourful 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 is 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. UN 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 was not 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 is not 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 UN 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 long-time president Mahinda Rajapaksa was upset in an election he had called. Victor Mr Sirisena defected from the ruling party in November in a surprise move and won the election by capitalising on Mr Rajapaksa’s unpopularity among ethnic and religious minorities.

In a speech he gave before the Pope spoke, Mr Sirisena said his government aimed 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, with a meeting with the country’s bishops and later with representatives of the country’s major religious groups.

There, he is 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% 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.

Tomorrow Francis will canonise 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 he will fly 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 will comfort victims of the devastating 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7,300 people dead or missing, displaced some four 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 five million who turned out for the last papal visit: St. John Paul II in 1995. Themes he is expected to raise are related to the family, poverty and the environment.

Published: Tuesday 13th January 2015 by The News Editor

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