COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Pope Francis brought calls for reconciliation and justice to Sri Lanka on Tuesday as he began a weeklong Asian tour, saying the island nation can't fully heal from a quarter-century of brutal civil war without pursuing the truth about abuses that were committed.
The 78-year-old pope arrived in Colombo after an overnight flight from Rome and immediately spent nearly two hours under a scorching sun greeting dignitaries and well-wishers along the 18-mile route into town. The effects were immediate: A weary and delayed Francis skipped a lunchtime meeting with Sri Lanka's bishops to rest before completing the rest of his grueling day.
"The health of the pope is good," the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, assured late Tuesday. "He was a little tired after the 28 kilometers under the sun, but now he has gain his strength."
Francis is the first pope to visit Sri Lanka since the government crushed a 25-year civil war by ethnic Tamil rebels demanding an independent Tamil nation because of perceived discrimination by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. U.N. estimates say 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed during the war, which ended in 2009; other reports suggest the toll could be much higher.
With 40 costumed elephants lining the airport road behind him and a 21-canon salute booming over the tarmac, Francis said that finding true peace after so much bloodshed "can only be done by overcoming evil with good, and by cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace."
He 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. But he said, "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."
A 2011 U.N. report said up to 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed in the last months of the civil war, and accused both sides of serious human rights violations. It said the government was suspected of deliberately shelling civilians and hospitals and preventing food and medicine from getting to civilians trapped in the war zone. The Tamil Tiger rebels were accused of recruiting child soldiers and holding civilians as human shields and firing from among them.
A few months after the U.N. report was released, the government of longtime President Mahinda Rajapaksa released its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission findings, which concluded that Sri Lanka's military didn't intentionally target civilians at the end of the war and that the rebels routinely violated international humanitarian law.
Sri Lanka's new president, Maithripala Sirisena who unseated Rajapaksa last week, has promised to launch a domestic inquiry into wartime abuses, but has also pledged to protect everyone who contributed to the defeat of the Tamil Tiger separatists from international legal action.
Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the responsibility for finding the truth was Sri Lanka's alone and stressed that Francis had made clear that the goal of determining the truth isn't to open old wounds.
Sirisena, who was sworn in Friday, told Francis in the airport welcoming ceremony that 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.
In a show of that coexistence, the pope's welcome ceremony at Colombo's airport featured traditional dancers and drummers from both ethnic groups and a children's choir serenading him in both of Sri Lanka's languages.
Tamils, however, say they are still discriminated against, and human rights activists said the previous government wasn't serious about probing rights abuses.
The Vatican estimated that some 200,000-300,000 people lined Francis' route in from the airport, which he traveled entirely in his open-sided popemobile. While some who had staked out positions since dawn were frustrated that he sped past so quickly, Francis took so long greeting well-wishers that he canceled a meeting with Sri Lanka's bishops in the afternoon after falling more than an hour behind schedule.
"This is like Jesus Christ himself coming to Sri Lanka!" marveled Ranjit Solis, 60, a retired engineer. He recalled that Pope Paul VI only spent two hours in Sri Lanka in 1970, while St. John Paul II spent a day in 1995. "The current pope is coming for three days! He serves the poor and is concerned about poor countries. It's a great thing."
After resting up, Francis met with Sirisena privately at the presidential palace in the late afternoon and then rallied to greet dozens of saffron-robbed Buddhist monks and representatives of Sri Lanka's other main religions.
At one point, he donned a saffron shawl over his shoulders, a traditional Tamil sign of honor.
"What is needed now is healing and unity, not further division and conflict," Francis told the audience. "It is my hope that interreligious and ecumenical cooperation will demonstrate that men and women do not have to forsake their identity, whether ethnic or religious, in order to live in harmony with their brothers and sisters."
Some 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist — most from the Sinhalese ethnic group. Another 13 percent are Hindu, most of them Tamil, and some 10 percent are Muslim. 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.
When John Paul visited in 1995, Buddhist representatives boycotted his interfaith meeting to protest his views on the Buddhist concept of salvation.
"It is a blessing and will be helpful for interreligious friendship," said the Rev. Wimalananda, a young Buddhist monk, who was out on the street to welcome the pope.
Francis arrived just days after 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.
"This is a good opportunity to unify the country after a war and bring together a society divided with an election," said another Francis watcher on the road in from the airport, Saman Priyankara. "It will be a strength to the new government at a time we are free from an autocracy and on a new path."
On Wednesday, Francis will canonize Sri Lanka's first saint, the Rev. Joseph Vaz, a 17th-century missionary from India who is credited with having revived the Catholic faith among both Sinhalese and Tamils amid persecution by Dutch colonial rulers, who were Calvinists. Colombo's beachfront Galle Face Green was filling up Tuesday evening with people who planned to camp out overnight to secure a good spot for the Mass.
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.