COLOMBO (Reuters) - Pope Francis called on Sri Lanka to uncover the truth about its long civil conflict and bring religious communities closer together, as he began a visit to the island nation whose wartime leaders were voted out of power only days ago.
Francis, 78, looked tired at an evening meeting of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian leaders, and earlier on Tuesday he canceled a meeting with bishops after a long flight from the Vatican and a sun-baked ride in a jeep along packed roads from the airport.
Soon after landing in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, he appeared to make the case for a truth commission to investigate the 26-year civil war, an election pledge of the government voted into office on Thursday.
“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,” he said, draped in a long garland of yellow and white roses.
The Pope’s comments chimed with his readiness to address contemporary political and economic issues.
The Vatican played a key role in the recent breakthrough in U.S.-Cuban relations, and, in comments made before he began his trip to Asia, Francis also said he was keen for North and South Korea to resume their dialogue.
Francis spoke first at Bandaranaike international airport, where he was met by President Maithripala Sirisena, troupes of dancers and a children’s choir. Sirisena said the visit was a blessing for his new government.
The pontiff departed past a long line of costumed elephants, reaching their trunks towards his white jeep, which briefly came to a halt surrounded by crowds lining the road. The motorcade’s slow progress through the tropical heat took its toll.
“Due to the hot sun he could not go,” Sri Lankan Church spokesman Cyril Gamini said of the bishops’ meeting. The Pope later met the president as scheduled.
Francis is the first pope to visit Sri Lanka in 20 years.
Fighting between the mainly Hindu Tamils and the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority ended in 2009 with a crushing defeat for the Tamils. A 2011 U.N. estimate put the death toll from the final army assault at up to 40,000 civilians.
Pope Francis had first-hand experience of civil strife as a priest in his native Argentina during its “Dirty War”. A subsequent 50,000-page truth report revealed shocking details of kidnappings, rape and torture by the military junta.
On Thursday, Francis will head to the Philippines as part of a trip aimed at shoring up the Church’s presence in developing nations. The week-long tour is his second to Asia.
The Pope carried a message of inter-faith dialogue, chiming with the new government’s push for religious harmony.
“My government is promoting peace and friendship among our people after overcoming a cruel terrorist conflict,” Sirisena said.
However, Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, was doubtful the new government would agree to a U.N. inquiry into the end of the war, preferring a domestic-led probe. Sirisena was acting defence minister as the war wound up.
“Sirisena has also said he is not going to back an international investigation,” said Ganguly.
About 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists. Hindus make up about 13 percent and Muslims 10 percent. Catholics are about 7 percent, split between ethnic Sinhalese and Tamils.
Francis will canonize Sri Lanka’s first Catholic saint on Wednesday, and visit a pilgrimage site that was shelled in 1999.
Francis called for a more inclusive society in Sri Lanka, in comments that seemed directed at former president and wartime leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, who lost office after a resurgence in religious tensions and anger at alleged corruption.
“The great work of rebuilding must embrace improving infrastructures and meeting material needs, but also, and even more importantly, promoting human dignity, respect for human rights, and the full inclusion of each member of society,” he said.
Rajapaksa is feted as a hero for ending three decades of war. He also presided over a period of fast economic growth and infrastructure reconstruction.
However, he refused to allow a fully independent inquiry into alleged war crimes and repression against religious minorities as well as political opponents was a feature of his decade-long government.
Rajapaksa’s rule coincided with isolated attacks led by hardline Buddhist monks against churches and other Christian centers.
Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal in Colombo; Editing by Jeremy Laurence, Paul Tait and Mike Collett-White