Pope Francis will launch his weeklong tour of Asia with a stop in Sri Lanka Tuesday aimed at promoting ethnic harmony between the Sinhalese and various minorities just days after voters ousted incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa in a heated presidential election. Francis is also expected to canonize Sri Lanka's first saint, Joseph Vaz, a 17th century priest who revived the Catholic church in the country amid persecution.
With Sri Lanka welcoming its first papal visit in two decades, traffic advisories said they will close down the major Negombo Road in Colombo, the nation's largest city, through noon Tuesday to prepare for a procession in Francis' honor. Once in Colombo, the Pope is expected to meet Sri Lankan bishops and government leaders.
Sri Lanka has a growing Catholic population despite its Buddhist majority. In all, Catholics make up about 6 percent of the country’s 20 million people. They come from both the Sinhalese ethnic majority and the Tamil minority, making the religion a possible bridge for relations between the two groups.
Francis is also expected to visit Our Lady of Madhu on Wednesday, a church in Sri Lanka’s north that had been at the frontlines of the country’s recent civil war. Francis wil fly in by helicopter for a service that's expected to draw at least half a million people, said Emilianuspillai Santhiapillai, the church's administrator. "This is a holy shrine for all people in Sri Lanka; there is no religious difference shown," Santhiapillai told Agence France-Presse. "Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims all come here for the harmonious and peaceful atmosphere."
The country’s two biggest ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamil, have been plagued by tensions for three decades, and Rajapaksa had been criticized for failing to patch relations between the two groups despite being credited with ending the civil war in 2009. In fact, some speculated that Rajapaksa had called for early elections last week to coincide with Francis' visit in hopes that his presence would quell any potential violence. He was defeated by former ally Maithripala Sirisena.