On arriving to Sri Lanka Tuesday morning, Pope Francis was adorned with a garland of yellow and white flowers around his neck and greeted by a children’s choir that serenaded him in English and Italian.
The song, composed specially for the occasion, ran, “Holy Father, dear Pope Francis, welcome to Sri Lanka; come bless our land, our people as God’s love with us you share, Benvenuto, Santo Padre, welcome to Sri Lanka.”
Among those at the airport to meet the Pope were its newly elected president, Maithripala Sirisena, and other government and church authorities.
Though in his opening address the Pope said that his visit to Sri Lanka “is primarily pastoral,” it will have a sharp political edge as well. His arrival in Colombo came just a few days after the island’s wartime leaders were voted out. At the airport, Francis called on authorities to uncover the truth of what happened during its bloody 26-year civil war as part of a healing process between religious communities.
“It is a continuing tragedy in our world that so many communities are at war with themselves,” Francis said. “The inability to reconcile differences and disagreements, whether old or new, has given rise to ethnic and religious tensions, frequently accompanied by outbreaks of violence.”
“The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth,” the Pope said, “not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity.”
The civil war itself had a strong religious component. Fought between the mainly Hindu Tamils and the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese, the war ended in 2009 with a crushing defeat for the Tamils. A UN estimate put the death toll from the final army assault at up to 40,000, though a US State Department report suggested that the actual casualty figures were probably much higher. Francis is the first pope to visit Sri Lanka since the end of the war.
Time magazine named the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War as one of the top 10 news stories of 2009.
The Pope’s schedule was delayed one hour because of crowds that slowed the papal retinue, forcing him to cancel a scheduled meeting and lunch with Sri Lanka’s bishops.
On leaving Colombo’s International Airport in a white popemobile with a transparent roof, Francis was met by huge crowds lining the street, estimated at some 30,000 people. When he finally arrived at the Apostolic Nunciature where he will be staying for two nights, Francis decided to stop, have a rest and celebrate mass before resuming his schedule.
This afternoon he is scheduled to pay a visit to Sri Lanka’s new head of state who was elected on 8 January, after which he will meet representatives of the country’s various religions.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome