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Pope urges respect for human rights in Sri Lanka

January 13, 2015

Pope Francis has urged "respect for human rights" in Sri Lanka, where he kicked off his South Asia tour. It was the country's first papal visit in two decades.

Christen in Sri Lanka
Image: AFP/Getty Images/S. Kodikara

"The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth," the head of the Catholic Church said in a speech at Colombo airport on Tuesday. Pope Francis brought a message of peace and reconciliation among different faiths on the war-torn island as he began a two-nation Asia tour.

"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.

Francis, 78, delivered the speech 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 major electoral upset. The pope also went to visit Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim leaders in Colombo.

The pontiff didn't refer specifically to Sri Lanka's refusal to cooperate with a UN investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the final months of the war which ended in 2009. A 2011 UN report said as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed, and that both sides committed serious human rights violations.

Bloody history

Tamil Tiger rebels fought a 25-year civil war to demand an independent Tamil nation after decades of perceived discrimination by the government of the Sinhalese majority. UN estimates say 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed during the course of the armed conflict, though other reports suggest the toll could be much higher.

Sri Lanka is mostly Buddhist, but the pope intends to focus on the role of the Catholic Church in a diverse society. Only around six percent of the country's 20 million people 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 Argentine pope's second visit to Asia will also take in the Philippines, a bastion of Christianity in the region, where he is expected to attract one of the biggest gatherings ever for a head of the Catholic Church.

bk/kms (AFP, Reuters, AP)