COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Less than a week after its longtime president was surprisingly voted out of office, Sri Lanka welcomes Pope Francis on Tuesday, with the island nation's Catholic minority hoping he can help heal the lingering wounds of the country's 25-year civil war.
The war between minority Tamil rebels, who are mostly Hindu, and the central government, dominated by the overwhelmingly Buddhist ethnic Sinhala majority, ended in 2009. Catholics make up less than 7 percent of Sri Lanka's population, but they come from both the Tamil and the Sinhala communities, making them a potential bridge between the two sides.
On Wednesday, after celebrating Mass in Colombo, the capital, Francis is scheduled to fly to the country's former war zone in the north, where Tamil Tiger rebels fought to create a separate homeland. He will visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, a site that draws both Tamil and Sinhala Catholics and has long been viewed as a symbol of unity.
The pope's visit "will be useful for national unity," said the Rev. Ravichandran Emmanuel, a priest from Jaffna, in the Tamil heartland. "The message he will carry to the south after seeing the people here will be important. It will be one of peace and justice."
Many Catholics had worried that Sri Lanka would not be peaceful enough for a papal visit because of the Jan. 8 election in which President Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated by a former ally turned rival, Maithripala Sirisena.
The election campaign had been tense with sporadic violence. During his nine-year reign, Rajapaksa amassed immense power backed by a strong parliament, a subservient judiciary, influential family members and support within the armed forces, and he hadn't been expected to easily relinquish power even if he was defeated. But the church remained confident that the elections would pass off peacefully, and as the results started to flow in, Rajapaksa conceded defeat and stepped down.
"The church always held that the pope's visit will not be canceled," said the Rev. Cyril Gamini Fernando, media spokesman for the visit.
Francis is expected to meet the new president, and to attend an interfaith conference that will include Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic leaders.
Buddhist clergy boycotted an interfaith meeting when Pope John Paul II visited in 1995. One Buddhist fundamentalist group has been critical of Francis, demanding that he apologize for crimes committed during the Portugese occupation starting in the 16th century, but other religious leaders have been more positive about his visit.
Across Sri Lanka, people were getting ready Monday for the papal visit. Churches were being spruced up. Flags in the papal colors of yellow and white, and the country's national flag were strung along the pope's route from the airport.
Arrangements were being made for the tens of thousands expected to attend Wednesday's papal Mass at the sprawling Galle Face Green park in Colombo.
At the Mass, Francis will canonize Sri Lanka's first saint, Joseph Vaz. The 17th-century priest revived the Catholic faith in the country amid persecution by Dutch colonial rulers, ministering to both Sinhalese and Tamil faithful.
"It's a great blessing to witness the sainthood of Father Joseph Vaz. It is something we can tell our grandchildren one day," said Tekla Senanayake, 58, a mother of five as she swept the church yard in Tudella, a small town on the road from the airport.
Jehan Perera, of the Colombo-based National Peace Council, said Francis will be breaking new ground for peace when he visits the north and celebrates Mass to commemorate all those who were killed in the civil war.
A United Nations report has said that around 40,000 Tamils may have been killed in just the final months of the fighting. The U.N. human rights body is investigating war crimes allegations against the government and Tamil Tigers. Many Tamils say they remain forgotten by the central government; they have been barred from publicly mourning their dead relatives while yearly commemorations are held for fallen government soldiers.
Perera said that with a new government in office, it was significant that a religious leader was taking "the first step of peace."
"This is the first occasion the country will remember everyone, including the civilians" who were killed, he said.