Pope Francis arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday at the start of a weeklong Asian tour, calling on the nation to uncover the truth of what happened during its bloody civil war as part of a healing process between religious communities, as he arrived in Colombo a few days after the island's wartime leaders were voted out.
While Francis didn't specifically mention Sri Lanka's refusal to cooperate with a U.N. investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the final months of the war, he said that finding reconciliation after so much bloodshed, "can only be done by overcoming evil with good, and by cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace."
A 2011 U.N. report said as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed in the final government assault that ended the war in 2009, and that both sides committed serious human rights violations.
"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.
Francis, 78, spoke on the tarmac of Colombo's Bandaranaike International Airport, where he was welcomed Sri Lanka's new president, Maithripala Sirisena, who was sworn in Friday after an electoral upset over Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was seeking a third term. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and other church leaders were on hand as well.
In a speech he gave before the pope spoke, Sirisena said his government aims to promote "peace and friendship among our people after overcoming a cruel terrorist conflict.
"We are a people who believe in religious tolerance and coexistence based on our centuries old heritage," he said.
The pope was welcomed with traditional drummers and dancers from both the Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups, and a children's choir singing a song of welcome in both languages of Sri Lanka — as well as English and Italian.
Francis is expected to call for greater dialogue among the country's Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Catholics amid a surge in anti-Muslim violence by fundamentalist Buddhists. Sinhalese are mostly Buddhist while Tamils are mostly Hindu. Catholics make up less than 7 percent of the island nation's 20 million people, but the church counts both Sinhalese and Tamils as members and sees itself as a strong source for national unity.
On Wednesday, Francis will canonize Sri Lanka's first saint, the Rev. Giuseppe Vaz, a 17th century missionary credited with having revived the Catholic faith among both Sinhalese and Tamils amid persecution by Dutch colonial rulers, who were Calvinists.