Souvenirs are displayed in early November in preparation for Pope Francis' Jan. 13-15 papal visit to Sri Lanka, at the Catholic Bookshop in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Church officials confirmed the visit will proceed as scheduled, despite its proximity to presidential elections. CNS photo/M.A. Pushpa Kumara, EPA

Papal visit on schedule, say Sri Lankan church officials

By  Anto Akkara, Catholic News Service
  • December 23, 2014

NEW DELHI - Sri Lankan church officials confirmed that Pope Francis' January trip to the country is on schedule, despite calls by Catholic clergy and organizations to postpone the visit because it is being politicized as the country prepares for a presidential election.

"We never said that we will change or cancel the visit. It is on schedule," said Father Cyril Gamini Fernando, director of the National Catholic Center for Social Communications in Sri Lanka and media coordinator for the Pope's Jan. 13-15 visit.

The election is scheduled for Jan. 8.

"Individuals and groups may have expressed their views and concerns. But (the schedule) stands as it is," Father Fernando told Catholic News Service Dec. 23.

"Yes, everything is on track," Bishop Nobert Andradi of Anuradhapura, former secretary-general of the Sri Lankan Catholic bishops' conference, confirmed Dec. 23 from the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, where he was preparing for the Pope's visit.

Bishop Andradi was quoted in the Divaina daily in Sinhala Dec. 15 as saying that the timing of the visit was "not appropriate" because of the election.

"My sentiments were not properly reported in the article. I wrote a rejoinder to them, but it has not been published yet," Bishop Andradi told CNS.

Father Leo Perera, director of the lay apostolate for Sri Lanka's Catholic Church, told CNS that "physical preparations may be going on, but people are more worried about the (presidential) elections."

Father Perera had written an open letter Nov. 26 to Sri Lanka's bishops urging them to ask the Vatican to postpone the papal visit. He wrote that Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa "had gone back on his assurances that the two events would not be too close to each other."

The Sri Lankan government announced Nov. 23 that presidential elections would be held Jan. 8; that was soon after a Vatican delegation left Sri Lanka after finalizing the Pope's schedule.

Even Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, bishops' conference president, earlier wrote to Rajapaksa asking him not to schedule the vote near the Pope's planned trip.

Father Perera cautioned that it would be "naive" to think that political parties would heed church appeals "not to use the Pope's image for propaganda purposes" and that it would have "disastrous consequences for the Catholics, with the impression being created that the church is favouring the president."

"Posters of the president with the Pope are around us," the priest noted.

Apart from that, he said, "elections in Sri Lanka have been always fraught with violence, and this time it will be no exception."

"The elections results three days ahead of the Pope's arrival could see street clashes. This is not the way Catholics want the Pope to be received into our country," wrote Father Perera, whose words of caution have been taken up by Christian groups and social media networks.

Marcus Perera, a Catholic businessman, sent a similar letter to Archbishop Pierre Nguyen Van Tot, papal nuncio to Sri Lanka. He told CNS that a survey found that 80 percent of the Sri Lankan Catholics want the Pope's visit to be postponed.

When asked for church reaction to the apparent widespread concern expressed by Catholics, Father Fernando admitted that "we know the people are worried about the elections. We are also worried about the elections."

However, he said, the schedule for the visit was finalized after a series of discussions.

"We cannot change the dates because of the elections. It has been never considered," he said.

Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, of which the Catholic Church is a member, told CNS it appears that astrology played a factor in Rajapaksa's decision to schedule the election for Jan. 8.

"Astrologers had told the president that his stars were getting weaker and weaker and his good period is coming to an end, and the sooner he called an election the better," said Perera, who is Catholic.

"For (Rajapaksa), winning the election is more important than anything else, including the Pope's visit. But he also did want the Pope to come, as he believes this will get him some additional Catholic votes," Jehan Perera said.

Father Perera suggested that "in Sri Lanka, politicians are more concerned about the positions of the stars than the aspirations or the good of the people."

"Sadly, a historic event is being politicized," he said.

Amid such concerns, the website for the trip -- www.Popefrancissrilanka.com -- is playing a countdown clock indicating days, hours and minutes left for the Pope to land in Sri Lanka.

Set to arrive in Colombo the morning of Jan. 13, Pope Francis first will meet the bishops at the archbishop's house in Colombo. After calling on the Sri Lankan president in the evening, the Pope will address an interreligious meeting in the capital.

The next day, the Pope will canonize Blessed Joseph Vaz, an Indian missionary credited with reviving almost single-handedly the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka during severe persecution by Dutch colonial authorities in the 17th century. The ceremony will occur at Galle Face Green, an ocean-side park in Colombo, before the Pope heads to the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu in an ethnic Tamil region in the afternoon.

After visiting the chapel of the Benedict XVI Cultural Institute early Jan. 15, the Pope will leave for the Philippines.

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