- - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka | Pope Francis brought calls for reconciliation and justice to Sri Lanka on Tuesday as he began the first Asian tour of his papacy, saying the island nation can’t fully heal from a quarter-century of brutal civil war without pursuing the truth about abuses that were committed.

The 78-year-old pope arrived in Colombo to kick off a weeklong trip and immediately spent nearly two hours under a scorching sun greeting dignitaries and well-wishers along an 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 remainder of his grueling day.

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. U.N. 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, Pope 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 didn’t specifically mention Sri Lanka’s refusal to cooperate with a U.N. investigation into suspected 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.”

The country’s plight may have special meaning for the new pope, whose native Argentina also has struggled with how to square accounts over the actions of the country’s past military dictatorship and the so-called “Dirty War.”

A 2011 U.N. report said up to 40,000 Tamil civilians may 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 U.N. report was released, the commission set up by longtime President Mahinda Rajapaksa released its own findings, which concluded that Sri Lanka’s military didn’t target civilians intentionally 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 also has pledged to protect everyone who contributed to the defeat of the Tamil Tiger separatists from international legal action.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, 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 isn’t to open old wounds.

Mr. Sirisena, who was sworn in 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.”

The Vatican estimated that up to 300,000 people lined Francis’ route from the airport, which he traveled entirely in his open-sided popemobile. Some who had staked out positions since dawn were frustrated that he sped past so quickly, trying to keep up with his crowded schedule.

Some 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist — most from the Sinhalese ethnic group. Another 13 percent are Hindu, most of them Tamil, and some 10 percent are Muslim. Catholics make up less than 7 percent of the island nation’s 20 million people, but the church counts ethnic Sinhalese and Tamils as members and sees itself as a strong source of national unity.

On Wednesday, Francis will canonize Sri Lanka’s first saint, the Rev. Joseph Vaz, a 17th-century missionary from India credited with having revived the Catholic faith among Sinhalese and Tamils amid persecution by Dutch colonial rulers, who were Calvinists. On Thursday, he heads to the Philippines, the largest Roman Catholic country in Asia and the third largest in the world, for the second and final leg of his journey.

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