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.
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No pope has ever travelled to the northern Tamil region, and Francis’ visit to Sri Lanka’s holiest Christian shrine – hours after canonising 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.
UN estimates put the number of people killed at 80,000 -100,000, although other reports suggest the toll could be much higher. The government 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.
“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 travelling 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. “All I pray for is peace.”
During the final stages of the war, the villages around Madhu emptied as residents fled deeper into rebel-held territory to escape the government’s offensive.
At one time, the priest in charge of the shrine fled for safety along with its statue of the Madonna.
Yesterday, 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.
He said: “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.”
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, he celebrated mass before half a million people in the capital’s Colombo’s Galle Face Green to canonise the Reverend Joseph Vaz as Sri Lanka’s first saint.
Rev 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.