COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (CNS) — Arriving in Sri Lanka, a country recovering from two and a half decades of ethnic and religious civil war, Pope Francis said reconciliation would require exploring, not ignoring, its painful recent history.
“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,” the pope said Jan. 13, at an arrival ceremony at Colombo’s international airport.
Pope Francis addressed his words to Sri Lanka’s new President Maithripala Sirisena, elected Jan. 8 and sworn in the following day. During the election campaign, Sirisena promised an independent investigation into war crimes allegedly committed during the 26-year struggle between government forces and rebels belong to the country’s Tamil minority.
The war, which ended in 2009, divided Sri Lanka along religious as well as ethnic lines, since members of the Sinhalese majority are typically Buddhist and Tamils for the most part Hindu. Catholics, who make up 7 percent of the country’s population, include members of both ethnic groups.
“Sri Lanka for many years knew the horrors of civil strife, and is now seeking to consolidate peace and to heal the scars of those years,” Pope Francis said. “I am convinced that the followers of the various religious traditions have an essential role to play in the delicate process of reconciliation and rebuilding which is taking place in this country.”
The pope was scheduled to meet with local Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and other Christian leaders later in the afternoon.
Pope Francis’ plane landed at 9 a.m. He was greeted by traditional dancers and drummers, a 21-gun salute and a choir of teenagers who sang a song of welcome in English, the same language the pope and Sirisena used for their remarks. Girls in white dresses and boys in neckties and shorts waved gold-and-white Vatican flags. Nearby stood 40 elephants draped in colorful fabrics, a traditional gesture of honor for distinguished guests.
The pope’s entourage, led by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, wore white cassocks, keeping with the ecclesiastical custom in tropical climates. Temperatures were in the 80s in the bright sunshine.
The pope rode the 17-mile distance to the nuncio’s residence in an open-sided popemobile past crowds waving Vatican flags. The ride took twice as long as expected, leading the pope to cancel a meeting with Sri Lanka’s bishops planned for early afternoon.
The day marked the start of Pope Francis’ second trip to Asia, following a visit to South Korea in August. He was scheduled to spend two full days in Sri Lanka, before flying to the Philippines Jan. 15. The highlights of the Sri Lanka leg were expected to be the Jan. 14 canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz as the country’s first saint and, later the same day, a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, which served as a sanctuary for refugees during the civil war.