Pope Francis accepts a gift from Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena during a visit in a presidential office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jan. 13. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Francis a gift for Sri Lanka

  • January 15, 2015

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA - It happened here again, but this time rather unexpectedly. In 1970 and in 1995, when Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II visited Sri Lanka, the president who invited them was no longer in office when they arrived. So it was for Pope Francis’ arrival this week, but more dramatically so.

Last fall Sri Lanka’s president since 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa, called elections two years ahead of time. He scheduled them for a few days before the Holy Father’s visit, as the Pope will not visit a country during an election. In the initial phases of the campaign, Rajapaksa was using images of him and the Pope in campaign ads until the Catholic bishops asked him to stop. In a country that is only seven-per-cent Catholic, even Francis’ great popularity would be unlikely to swing an election.

The fear in Rome was that the Sri Lankan election would be followed by violence and that Rajapaksa, already widely accused of war crimes in the Sri Lanka civil war which he won in 2009, might be greeting the Pope having recently stolen an election. The Holy Father’s visit, five years after the civil war ended, was to be a call for reconciliation and forgiveness — the gifts of mercy that Francis so often speaks about. But reconciliation is difficult if fresh offences are being committed. The Holy See decided to go ahead with the visit, but even a week before departure there was great nervousness.

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