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Pope Francis visits Sri Lanka in symbolic show of solidarity in war-torn country

Thousands of people waving the white and yellow Vatican flags welcomed Pope Francis to northern Sri Lanka on Wednesday.

Pope Francis traveled to the jungles of war-torn northern Sri Lanka on Wednesday for a deeply symbolic show of solidarity with the victims of the country's 25-year civil war and to urge forgiveness and reconciliation "for all the evil which this land has known."

Thousands of people waving the white and yellow Vatican flags welcomed Francis to the Our Lady of Madhu shrine, which is revered by both Sinhalese and Tamil Catholics, as well as people of other faiths. No pope has ever traveled to the northern Tamil region, and Francis' visit to Sri Lanka's holiest Christian shrine — hours after canonizing the country's first saint as a model for unity — provided a poignant backdrop for his calls for Sri Lankans to overcome their prejudices and seek pardon for the sake of peace.

"Only when we come to understand, in the light of the cross, the evil we are capable of and have even been a part of, can we experience true remorse and true repentance," he said after setting free a dove in a sign of peace. "Only then can we receive the grace to approach one another in true contrition, offering and seeking true forgiveness."

Tamil Tiger rebels fought a 25-year civil war to demand an independent Tamil nation after decades of perceived discrimination by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. U.N. estimates say 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed during the course of the war, though other reports suggest the toll could be much higher. The government finally crushed the rebels in a bloody series of offensives that ended in 2009.

During the war, the Madhu shrine — which was originally built in the 16th century by Catholics fleeing persecution in the northern Jaffna kingdom — again became a place of refuge with thousands of people fleeing there for cover.

"I believe the holy father's visit will be a remedy to our pain," said Mary Conseeta, 22, who lost two brothers, aged 13 and 15, in 2008 when the school bus they were traveling home in exploded in a roadside blast blamed on Sri Lankan forces. She escaped with a wound in her leg.

"I have faced enormous losses, not only me, but everyone who is here is carrying some form of grief," she said before Francis arrived in Madhu. "All I pray for is peace."

During the final stages of the war, the villages around Madhu emptied out as residents fled deeper into rebel-held territory to escape the government's offensive. At one point, the priest in charge of the shrine fled for safety along with its precious statue of the Madonna, which dates from the arrival of the earliest Christians in Sri Lanka and is believed to hold miraculous healing powers. Both eventually returned.

On Wednesday, Francis cradled the statue in his arms, telling the faithful before him that while the statue had once left, the Virgin Mary had never stopped protecting them.

"Just as her statue came back to her shrine of Madhu after the war, so we pray that all her Sri Lankan sons and daughters may come home to God in a renewed spirit of reconciliation and fellowship," he said. Francis, who is particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary, urged the crowd to pray "for the grace to make reparation for our sins and for all the evil which this land has known."

It was his second major call for reconciliation of the day: Earlier in the morning, he celebrated a Mass before a half-million people in Colombo's Galle Face Green to canonize the Rev. Joseph Vaz as Sri Lanka's first saint.

Vaz was a 17th century Indian missionary who revived the faith in Sri Lanka during a time of anti-Catholic persecution by Dutch colonists, who were Protestant Calvinists.

The Catholic Church considers Vaz a great role model for today's faithful, ministering to the faithful of both of Sri Lanka's main ethnic groups and putting himself at great risk to spread the faith.

Francis told the crowd that Vaz lived at a time — like today — when Catholics were a minority and often persecuted, and yet he ministered to all, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.

"St. Joseph shows us the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace," Francis said in his homily, delivered in English and then translated for the crowd into both Sinhalese and Tamil. "As the life of St. Joseph Vaz teaches us, genuine worship of God bears fruit not in discrimination, hatred and violence, but in respect for the sacredness of life, respect for the dignity and freedom of others, and loving commitment to the welfare of all."

He said the Sri Lankan church today only wants to continue Vaz's legacy of service to all, asking only for the freedom to preach in return. "Religious freedom is a fundamental human right," he said.

To underscore that point, Francis gave Sri Lanka's bishops a replica of a 17th century decree from the then-king of Kandy — an independent state on the island at the time — allowing Catholic conversions of Buddhists — a somewhat provocative message given the recent upswing in violence against Muslims and some Protestant churches by Buddhist extremists who want Sri Lanka to be exclusively Buddhist.

Catholics make up slightly more than 6 percent of Sri Lanka's population of 21 million. They are by far the largest Christian denomination in the country, but are a distinct minority compared to Buddhists, who make up about 70 percent, with Hindus comprising 13 percent. Muslims make up about 10 percent of the population.

Most Sinhalese are Buddhist and most Tamils Hindu, but the Catholic Church counts both ethnic groups as its members, and as a result considers itself a source of unity for the country.

Wednesday morning's canonization Mass drew people from across the teardrop-shaped Indian Ocean island nation, eager to see the first pope to visit since St. John Paul II in 1995. In fact, it was during that brief visit that John Paul beatified Vaz, using the same altar that Francis used Wednesday to make Vaz a saint.

The crowds poured off buses and out into the street from the nearby railway station. Security was tight, and everyone had to walk the last few hundred meters (yards) to the Galle Face Green, but the atmosphere was festive and ordered. Taxi drivers handed out free cups of tea and the crowd was treated to traditional dancing and music.

The park has a capacity of 500,000 and the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the crowd more than surpassed the half-million mark.

"My son can't understand what's going on, but I will take photographs and show him when he grows up how he attended this holy Mass," Pradeep Niroshan, a 31-year-old insurance agent, said as he carried his 2-year-old son to the service. "It will be memorable for him, because the next pope to come to Sri Lanka may be after 20 years."

On Thursday, Francis flies to the Philippines for the second and final leg of his Asian pilgrimage.

___

Winfield reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Associated Press writer Bharatha Mallawarachi and Krishan Francis in Colombo and photographer Alessandra Tarantino in Madhu contributed to this report.

___

Follow Nicole Winfield on Twitter 

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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