Pope Francis heads to Sri Lanka on two-country Asian pilgrimage

(Photo: REUTERS / Alessandro Di Meo / Pool)Pope Francis meets Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa (L) and his wife Shiranthi Rajapaksa (R) during a private audience at the Vatican October 3, 2014.

After months of uncertainty as to whether his visit would go ahead due to the political climate, Pope Francis has begun a two-country tour in Asia, making his way to Sri Lanka for a three-day Apostolic journey.

Francis' visit comes just days after voters Sri Lankan voters ousted incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa in a strongly-contested presidential election.

The Argentine pontiff is also expected to canonize Sri Lanka's first saint, Joseph Vaz, a 17th century priest who invigorated the Catholic Church during a period of persecution.

Colombo Archbishop Cardinal Albert Malcolm Ranjith and president-elect Maithripala Sirisena will receive the Pope when he arrives on the island.

Sirisena won the presidential election by a big margin, a surprising outcome considering his predecessor, Rajapaksa, called the election with some haste.

Some observers said Rajapaksa, who sought an unprecedented third term, even timed the papal visit close to the election trying to curry favor among the minority Catholics on the island.

In an interview with Vatican Radio, Ranjith explained that Francis' visit is timely considering the election of Sirisena, who is expected to work towards reconciliation between the Sinhalese and the minority Tamils.

"I think [Pope Francis'] coming at this time with a new government is a good indication that he will be able to give a push to that decision of the new government to work towards a reconciliation between the Sinhalese and the Tamils after the 30-year civil war," Cardinal Ranjith said.

"The new government has promised to work for reconciliation among the people," he noted.

Mainly-Buddhist Sinhalese make up about 75 percent of the population followed by mainly-Hindu Tamils, who are the largest minority group. Catholics are estimated to be around 6 percent of the population.

As on previous visits, Francis has insisted on a no-frills trip, asking his hosts to allow him to interact with the poor and the marginalized, according to the cardinal.

"We are happy he is taking that attitude," said Cardinal Ranjith, "because it is I think an example to all of us, especially to us bishops, and Cardinals!"

Francis is to canonize Blessed Joseph Vaz, who ministered both Sinhalese and Tamil faithful as he revived the faith in the former Dutch colony.

The canonization will take place in the Tamil region of the island where the Pope is expected to meet and greet the Tamil people.

He then heads to the Philippines where he is expected to interact with victims of Typhoon Haiyan.

Ranjith also pointed to a coincidence involving the new government and popes coming to the island.

He said that "Strangely enough, in the case of all three popes who came to Sri Lanka – Pope Paul, Pope John Paul, and Pope Francis" government that issued the invitation was not the receiving government, commented Ranjith.

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