Pope Francis visits a former war zone in northern Sri Lanka, preaching forgiveness at a Catholic shrine that was shelled during the country’s long ethnic conflict.
It was the first visit by a pope to the predominantly Hindu region that contains a large Catholic minority and was the scene of fierce fighting between Tamil Tiger rebels and the Sri Lankan army for 26 years. Up to 100,000 people died before the war ended in 2009.
Earlier, Francis gave Sri Lanka its first saint at a waterfront Mass for more half a million people in Colombo, calling 17th century missionary Joseph Vaz a model of reconciliation after the war.
In a prayer at the church of Our Lady of Madhu, Francis denounced the “evil” conflict that “tore open the heart” of Sri Lanka, and drove home the central message of his two-day trip – that religions need to work together to heal the wounds of war.
“May all people here find inspiration and strength to build a future of reconciliation, justice and peace for all the children of this beloved land,” he said. The shrine containing a 400-year old statue of Mary is the most venerated Catholic site on the island.
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In 1999, shells slammed into the church, killing some 40 people who had sought refuge there. Since the end of the war, the north has undergone reconstruction, but divisions still run deep. The region gets few visits from world leaders.