COLOMBO — Pope Francis said on Tuesday Sri Lanka needed to find out the truth of what happened during its long civil war in order to consolidate peace and heal scars between religious communities.
Francis appeared to make the case for a truth commission to investigate the Buddhist-majority nation’s 26-year civil war, an election pledge of the government voted into office on Thursday.
“The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth, not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity,” he said on arrival at Bandaranaike international airport.
The war pitted mainly Hindu Tamils against the Sinhalese, and mostly Buddhist, majority. It ended in 2009 with a crushing defeat of the Tamil rebels in an army onslaught that killed up to 40,000 civilians, according to a 2011 UN estimate.
On his second Asian excursion, Francis will spend two days in Sri Lanka before going to the Philippines, part of his outreach aimed at shoring-up the Church’s presence in developing nations.
Francis carried a message of inter-faith dialogue that chimed with an unusually harmonious atmosphere in Sri Lanka that last week elected a government promising increased respect for long-suffering religious minorities.
About 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists. Hindus make up about 13 percent and Muslims 10 percent. Catholics are about 7 percent, split between ethnic Sinhalese and Tamils.
In comments that seemed directed at former president and wartime leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, who lost office after a resurgence in religious tensions, Francis called for a more inclusive society in Sri Lanka.
“The great work of rebuilding must embrace improving infrastructures and meeting material needs, but also, and even more importantly, promoting human dignity, respect for human rights, and the full inclusion of each member of society,” he said.
Rajapaksa is feted as a hero for ending three decades of war. He also presided over a period of fast economic growth and infrastructure reconstruction.
However, he refused to allow a fully independent inquiry into alleged war crimes and presided over a period of growing repression of religious minorities as well as political opponents.
Pope Francis had first-hand experience of devastating civil strife as a priest in his native Argentina during its “Dirty War”. A 50,000 page truth report after that war revealed shocking details of kidnappings, rapes and torture by the military junta.
He also carried a message with a wider resonance in the wake of Islamist militant violence in Nigeria and France last week.
“It is a continuing tragedy in our world that so many communities are at war with themselves,” he said.
“The inability to reconcile differences and disagreements, whether old or new, has given rise to ethnic and religious tensions, frequently accompanied by outbreaks of violence.”