COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Pope Francis arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday at the start of a weeklong Asian tour, saying the island nation can’t fully heal from a quarter-century of ethnic civil war without pursuing the truth about the injustices that were committed.
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 international airport, where he was welcomed under sunny skies by Sri Lanka’s new president, Maithripala Sirisena, who was sworn in Friday after a big electoral upset. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and other church leaders were on hand as well.
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.
Tamil Tiger rebels fought a 25-year civil war to demand an independent Tamil nation after decades of perceived discrimination by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. U.N. estimates say 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed during the course of the war, though other reports suggest the toll could be much higher.
Tamils still claim discrimination, and human rights activists have said the government isn’t serious about probing abuses by its own armed forces, which are accused of targeting hospitals and blocking food and medicine. The U.N. report, for its part, found that the rebels were accused of recruiting child soldiers and holding civilians as human shields.
Francis arrived just days after the country’s longtime president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was upset in an election he had called. The victor, Sirisena, had defected from the ruling party in November in a surprise move and won the election by capitalizing on Rajapaksa’s unpopularity among ethnic and religious minorities.
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.
Francis has a busy first day, including meeting the country’s bishops and later with representatives of Sri Lanka’s major religious groups.
Two elaborately decorated elephants, with bored-looking handlers riding on top, lined the route exiting the airport that was full of schoolchildren waving the yellow and white flags of the Holy See.
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.
Later in the day he flies into Tamil territory to pray at a shrine beloved by both Sinhalese and Tamil faithful.
On Thursday he heads to the Philippines, the largest Roman Catholic country in Asia and third-largest in the world, for the final leg of the journey.
There he’ll comfort victims of the devastating 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7,300 people dead or missing, displaced some 4 million and turned a huge densely populated region into a wasteland.
Millions of Filipinos are expected to turn out for his events, possibly surpassing the record 5 million who turned out for the last papal visit: St. John Paul II in 1995. Themes Francis is expected to raise are related to the family, poverty and the environment.
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