COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Visiting a nation torn apart for 30 years by a civil war that pit Buddhists against Hindus and Muslims, with Christians both bystanders and sometimes victims, Pope Francis was expected to have something important to say about interfaith relationships.
He delivered that Tuesday in Sri Lanka, telling a cross-section of the country’s religious leaders that harmony among different faiths is critical, but it cannot come at the expense of the distinctive identity of each.
Citing the teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Francis said that the Catholic Church has a “deep and abiding respect for other religions.”
Speaking in English, Francis reprised what has become an emerging theme: The effort to deny legitimacy to anyone who uses religion to justify brutality. He said “religious beliefs must never be allowed to be abused in the cause of violence and war.”
On that note, he also heard a Sri Lankan Muslim cleric sharply condemn the recent terrorist attack in Paris, insisting that now is a time for religious leaders “to support each other.”
Yet respect for other religions, the pope implied, must not mean going soft about one’s own beliefs.
“As experience has shown, for such dialogue and encounter to be effective, it must be grounded in a full and forthright presentation of our respective convictions,” the pontiff said on the opening day of his week-long trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
“Men and women do not have to forsake their identity, whether ethnic or religious, in order to live in harmony with their brothers and sisters,” Francis said.
“If we are honest in presenting our convictions,” the pope said, “we will be able to see more clearly what we hold in common.”
Francis made the comments in a meeting with religious leaders in a local conference hall, wrapping up the first full day of his Jan. 12-19 outing to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, his second trip to Asia since his election.
Sri Lanka is a highly diverse religious environment. Buddhists make up around 70 percent of the population, followed by Hindus at 12 percent, Muslims at 9 percent, and Christians around 7 percent.
Tuesday evening, Francis saw expressions of that diversity, including a chant by a Buddhist monk, with other monks in the hall joining in, as well as blessings from Hindu and Muslim clergy and a prayer by an Anglican bishop.
At one point, the Hindu cleric, Suwami Sommasundaram, gave the pontiff a saffron shawl, a sacred color for Hindus, which Francis placed over his shoulders and wore throughout the event.
The Muslim cleric, Sheikh M.F.M. Fazil, referred to the recent Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, where the slaying of 12 people by gunmen shouting Islamic slogans aroused outrage around the world. Five more people were killed by another Muslim extremist — a policewoman and four people at a Jewish supermarket in another part of the city.
Saying the victims of the attack “were massacred and killed in the name of Islam,” Fazil insisted that Islam has no relationship to such practices and evil deeds,” and that it is a faith of “peace and harmony.”
Fazil said that terrorism and extremism are actually “a religion on its own.”
“We request from the religious leaders and dignitaries [that] we need to unite, we need to understand each other’s faith, we need to support each other,” he said.
The very fact of the session was auspicious, since the last time a pope came to Sri Lanka, in 1995, it was immediately after John Paul II had angered many Buddhists by calling their faith “in large measure an atheistic system.” Some Buddhist leaders boycotted a similar inter-religious meeting during that trip in protest, but there was no such bad blood this time.
Francis was led into the hall wearing a garland of flowers placed around his neck and accompanied by a line of Sri Lankan musicians beating drums. They took their seats on a stage with symbols of each religion in the background.
In the spirit of the 21st century, many of the followers of the different religions in the hall took turns snapping pictures of one another on their cell phones and dispatching them via Twitter.
A Sri Lankan bishop called the gathering a “sacred and unique event” in the country’s history.
Francis’ thoughts on interfaith relations will be keenly pondered here for two reasons.
Religiously speaking, Sri Lanka is a study in contrasts. It’s one of the most intensely spiritual societies on the planet — the third most religious in the world, according to a 2008 Gallup study — where tolerance and diversity are often touted as defining national values.
“We are a people who believe in religious tolerance and co-existence based on our centuries-old spiritual heritage,” President Maithripala Sirisena told the pope Tuesday upon welcoming him to the country.
As if to prove the point, Sirisena, a Buddhist who’d been in office roughly 100 hours at that point, told Francis he felt privileged to receive the pontiff at the start of his term so he could ask for a blessing.
On Wednesday, Francis will visit a famed Marian shrine in the north of the country, a Catholic sanctuary that nevertheless draws significant numbers of Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim pilgrims as well. In downtown Colombo, Protestant churches and Buddhist temples this week are displaying banners welcoming the pontiff.
On the other hand, Sri Lanka is also a place where Buddhists went to war against a Hindus and Muslim Tamil minority, and where, five years after the close of that conflict, hardline Buddhist nationalists and militant Muslims sometimes seem on the brink of starting a new one.
Francis referred to that past and present today, saying that “for too many years, the men and women of this country have been victims of strife and violence,” and that what’s needed today is “healing and unity, not further conflict and division.”
The pope said that the great work of rebuilding must focus on infrastructure and material poverty, but even more so “promoting human dignity, respect for human rights, and the full inclusion of each member of society.”
Francis’ language on identity and dialogue will be closely scrutinized. Tensions between Asian bishops and the Vatican on that score have a long history, and during the 1990s and 2000s, several progressive Asian theologians were disciplined for going too far in blending Eastern spiritual concepts and practices into Christianity.
One of those theologians was a Sri Lankan, the late Tissa Balasuriya, who was briefly excommunicated before agreeing to sign a loyalty oath.
Francis is generally regarded as more flexible on such matters, though his language on Wednesday suggests there are limits, and that he may be vigilant about maintaining a distinctive Catholic identity in Asia like his predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Shortly before he departed for his second Asia trip, Francis referred in a slightly skeptical way to some Eastern practices during a homily in his Vatican residence.
“A yoga session can’t teach a heart to feel the paternity of God,” he said, “and a course in Zen spirituality can’t make it freer to love.”
Overall, Francis on Tuesday called on followers of different religions to come together to build a better world, striving in particular to meet “the material and spiritual needs of the poor,” and — something key in a country that has lived through a 30-year war — “the many families who continue to mourn the loss of their loved ones.”
This promises to be a grueling week for Francis, as he carries out the longest foreign trip of his papacy since a July 2013 outing to Brazil.
The weather in Sri Lanka upon the pope’s arrival was sunny and warm, with temperatures expected to be in the high 80s, and Francis’ penchant for moving through crowds slowly in a Pope-mobile has some of his aides concerned about the possibility of his being affected by the heat.
A planned meeting with local bishops on Tuesday was canceled at the last minute, with Vatican officials citing a lengthy delay in the pope’s route from the airport to downtown Colombo as Francis spent time greeting the crowds, coupled with the fact that he had already met the bishops at the airport and also saw them last May in Rome.
On background, however, some officials traveling with the pope said that sparing him more exposure to the sun would also be no bad thing.
On Wednesday, Francis is scheduled to celebrate an outdoor Mass to canonize Blessed Joseph Vaz, a 17th- and 18th-century missionary priest from Goa in India who helped rebuild the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka during an era of Dutch Protestant repression. At least a half million Sri Lankans, some of them non-Catholics, are expected to attend.
Later in the day, the pontiff will travel to the country’s north to visit the Marian sanctuary in Madhu, located in what was a battle zone during the war. Many locals see the outing as an indirect way for the pope to call on the Sri Lankan government to do more to promote development and reconciliation in the north, where the minority Tamil population is concentrated.
On Friday, the pontiff departs Sri Lanka for the Philippines, by far the largest Catholic nation in Asia, where he’s expected to draw some of the biggest crowds in history for papal events.
In one measure of the keen interest awaiting the pope there, some 14 Filipino journalists are traveling aboard the papal plane, one of the largest contingents of local media ever to fly with a pontiff.