Pope's seafront mass to draw million Sri Lankans

COLOMBO (AFP) - Pope Francis will on Wednesday give a seafront mass in the Sri Lankan capital expected to draw at least a million worshippers, on the second day of a two-nation tour of Asia.

The Argentine pope has focused on post-war reconciliation during his visit, which comes days after an election that exposed bitter divisions and saw the surprise exit of controversial president Mahinda Rajapakse.

On Tuesday, the pope 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 Mr Rajapakse.

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 gatherings for a head of the Catholic Church.

A mainly Buddhist country, Sri Lanka has a much smaller Catholic community and the pope is expected to preach a message of interfaith harmony during his mass on Wednesday, which has been declared a national holiday.

Worshippers began lining up on Tuesday for the open-air service on Colombo's Galle Face Green, with thousands camping out overnight for a glimpse of the first pope to come to the island in two decades.

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

Many 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," she said.

On Tuesday the pope met with Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim leaders and urged them to work together for reconciliation, saying religion should never be a cause for violence.

During Wednesday's mass, the pope will canonise Sri Lanka's first saint, a 17th century missionary from Goa credited with reviving the Catholic church on the island at a time of persecution by Dutch colonisers.

He will then 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.

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.

Only 6 per cent of 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 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.

On Thursday, he will fly on to the Philippines, where anticipation has been building for months, with the pope dominating the media and sparking a merchandise frenzy.

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

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