COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Pope Francis is bringing a message of interreligious and interethnic harmony to a Sri Lanka still recovering from the wounds of a brutal, quarter-century civil war and on the heels of new international religious tensions over the Paris attacks.
Hours before Francis departed for his weeklong Asian pilgrimage, he told Vatican-based diplomats that fundamentalist terrorism was the result of people becoming enslaved by "deviant forms of religion" and using God as an ideological pretext to perpetuate mass killings.
Francis is expected to nevertheless press his call for greater dialogue among people of different faiths during his visit to Sri Lanka, a mostly Buddhist Indian Ocean island nation that has Hindu, Muslim and Catholic minorities and a long history of Christianity because of its 400 years of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial rule.
Francis arrives Tuesday morning in a dramatically different Sri Lanka than what the Vatican expected just days ago after the country's longtime president was upset in an election he had called.
New Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, who capitalized on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa's unpopularity among ethnic and religious minorities, will be on hand to welcome Francis when he arrives in the capital, Colombo.
Francis has a busy first day, including an airport arrival speech and a meeting with the country's bishops. The main event is an afternoon meeting with representatives of its major religious groups.
There, he's expected to call for greater harmony and dialogue among the country's Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Catholics amid a surge in anti-Muslim violence by fundamentalist Buddhists.
He is also expected to call for greater reconciliation between Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority during the first papal visit since Sri Lanka's civil war ended in 2009 with the army's brutal crushing of the Tamil Tiger rebels. 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 of national unity.
On Wednesday, Francis will canonize Sri Lanka's first saint, the Rev. Joseph Vaz, a 17th century missionary credited with reviving 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 the third-largest in the world, for the second and 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 attend his events, possibly surpassing the record 5 million who turned out for the last papal visit, by St. John Paul II in 1995. Francis is expected to raise themes related to the family, poverty and the environment.
Winfield reported from Vatican City.
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