Pope Francis urged respect for human rights as he began a two-nation Asia tour in a windswept Sri Lanka Tuesday, bearing a message of peace and reconciliation after a decades-long civil war.
His visit, days after the surprise election of a new president, is focused on unity in a country struggling to heal the wounds of a 37-year conflict that pitted troops against Tamil separatists.
The Argentine pope’s second visit to Asia will also take in the Philippines, a bastion of Christianity in the region, where he is set to attract one of the biggest-ever gatherings for a head of the Catholic Church.
But in mostly Buddhist Sri Lanka, which has seen a rise in religious violence in recent years, he is focusing on the role of the Church in a diverse society.
“The great work of rebuilding must embrace… promoting human dignity, respect for human rights, and the full inclusion of each member of society,” the pope said on his arrival in Colombo.
Human rights are a hugely contentious issue in Sri Lanka, which has alienated the international community by refusing to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation into alleged wartime mass killing of civilians.
– ‘Pursuit of truth’ –
“The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth,” said the pope, who was greeted at the airport by new President Maithripala Sirisena.
Sirisena has promised an independent domestic inquiry into the allegations of wartime rights abuses under his predecessor Mahinda Rajapakse.
His new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said before the election his government would also ensure a South African-style truth commission.
Only around six percent of the 20-million-strong population is Catholic, but the religion is seen as a unifying force because it includes people from both the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil ethnic groups.
The pope held a meeting with the president before addressing Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim leaders, urging them to work together for reconciliation.
“For the sake of peace, religious beliefs must never be allowed to be abused in the cause of violence and war,” said Francis.
The pope earlier cancelled a meeting with Sri Lankan bishops after spending nearly two hours in an open-top car on the road from the airport, which was thronged with thousands of well-wishers.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the 78-year-old had suffered “a moment of tiredness” after the journey under the hot sun, but was now fully recovered.
A short distance from the international airport, the pope stopped his car to step out and bless an unidentified child in a wheel chair, a private television network reported.
Video footage showed a flurry by his own guards as well as local police as he walked into a crowd of people.
Pope Francis has shunned the pomp of his predecessors, and said he prefers not to use the bulletproof “popemobile” favoured by previous pontiffs.
He had to battle strong gusts of wind that repeatedly blew his white cape over his head during his speech, and at one point took off his skullcap.
On Wednesday, which has been declared a national holiday, he will hold a mass on Galle Face Green on the Colombo seafront that is expected to attract around a million people.
Thousands of devotees from across the country began gathering there late Tuesday, hoping for a good spot to see the first pope to visit the island in two decades.
Sunil Perera was with a group of 60 who had travelled from the island’s deep south, taking a seven-hour bus ride to the capital.
“We arrived late, and spots near the altar had already been taken,” said the 62-year-old, who had to content himself with a spot along the route the pope will take.
During his visit, Pope Francis will also visit a small church in the jungle that was on the front lines of the ethnic conflict which killed around 100,000 people.
The Our Lady of Madhu church in the mainly Tamil north provided sanctuary during the fighting, and is now a pilgrimage destination for Christians from across the ethnic divide.
– Special interest in Asia –
The pope’s trip comes just five months after he visited South Korea, signalling the huge importance the Vatican places on Asia and its potential for more followers.
The region holds a special interest for Pope Francis, who as a young priest considered becoming a missionary in Japan.
On Thursday he will fly on to the Philippines, where anticipation has been building for months, with the pope dominating the media and sparking a merchandise frenzy.
The Philippines is one of the Church’s modern success stories, counting roughly 80 percent of the former Spanish colony’s 100 million people as Catholics.
He will meet survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan, which claimed 7,350 lives when it hit in 2013.