Huge crowds greet Pope Francis on Sri Lankan seafront

COLOMBO (AFP) - Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans crowded the Colombo seafront on Wednesday as Pope Francis canonised the island's first saint in one of the biggest public gatherings the city has ever witnessed.

As a choir sang welcoming hymns under a glaring sun, the pontiff greeted people in wheelchairs who had been pushed forward to the front of the vast crowd on the shores of the Indian Ocean to receive his blessing.

Many worshippers had waited through the night to see Francis conduct a mass on Colombo's imposing Galle Face Green and then canonise Joseph Vaz, a 17th century missionary who disguised himself as a beggar.

Waving Vatican flags, many held up mobile phones to film the 78-year-old, who smiled but appeared tired as he made his way to the specially-constructed stage where the mass began.

The Argentine pope, who has focused on post-war reconciliation during his visit, said Vaz had shown "the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace", ministering to those in need regardless of their creed.

Sri Lanka is a mainly Buddhist country but has significant Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities, and has suffered a rise in religious violence in recent years.

"Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. Each individual must be free, alone or in association with others, to seek the truth, and to openly express his or her religious convictions, free from intimidation and external compulsion," said the pope.

- Reviving the Catholic church -

Vaz is credited with reviving the Catholic church on the island at a time of religious persecution by Dutch colonisers, giving him a contemporary significance for Sri Lankans.

He travelled from village to village ministering to Catholics from both the Tamil and the majority Sinhalese ethnic groups, disguised as a beggar because the Dutch had banned Catholic priests from the island.

Wednesday's mass was a colourful mix of the country's diverse mix of cultures, with hymns sung in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages as well as traditional dances and drumming.

Crowds leaned in to touch the pope as he arrived on Galle Face Green in a customised open-topped car, before kissing the altar to mark the start of the service.

It is the highest-profile celebration at the landmark site since Rajapakse led a victory parade in 2009 after the end of the war.

Many worshippers clutched photographs of loved ones who could not be there, among them 54-year-old Srimathi Fernando, whose husband is recovering from a heart attack.

"I came early to grab a spot in front so that I can show this picture to the Holy Father and get a blessing for him (her husband)," she told AFP.

After the mass - the centrepiece of the first papal visit to the island in two decades - Pope Francis will head to a small church in the jungle that was on the front lines of the conflict between government troops and guerrillas seeking a separate homeland for the country's Tamil minority.

- Pilgrimage destination -

The Our Lady of Madhu church in the mainly Tamil north provided sanctuary during the fighting, and is now a pilgrimage destination for Christians from across the ethnic divide.

The pope's visit comes just days after an election that exposed bitter divisions on the island and saw the surprise exit of strongman president Mahinda Rajapakse.

On Tuesday, Francis urged respect for human rights in Sri Lanka and said the "pursuit of truth" was necessary to heal the wounds of a 37-year civil war, weighing into a fierce debate over the investigation of alleged abuses under Rajapakse.

Only around six per cent of mainly Buddhist Sri Lanka's 20-million-strong population is Catholic, but the religion is seen as a unifying force because it includes people from both the Tamil and majority Sinhalese ethnic groups.

The pontiff's second visit to Asia will also take in the Philippines, a bastion of Christianity in the region, where he is set to attract one of the biggest-ever gatherings for a head of the Catholic Church.

He will meet survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, one of the Church's modern success stories, counting roughly 80 percent of the former Spanish colony's 100 million people as Catholics.

The pope's trip comes just five months after he visited South Korea, signalling the huge importance the Vatican places on Asia and its potential for more followers.