COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Pope Francis on Tuesday insisted that healing from violence and conflict must include the “pursuit of truth,” making the point upon his arrival in Sri Lanka, an Asian nation still recovering from a 30-year civil war between a Buddhist majority and a Hindu minority that ended in 2009.
The insistence on truth as an ingredient of recovery may sound like boilerplate rhetoric in other settings, but it has clear political significance in Sri Lanka, where the question of whether to establish a “Truth Commission” with the power to recommend prosecutions for alleged war crimes during the country’s long-running conflict is volatile.
“The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth, not for the sake of opening old wounds but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing, and unity,” Francis said upon his arrival at the airport in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo.
The pope arrived to a colorful welcoming ceremony, complete with traditional drummers and dancers from both the Sinhalese and Tamil groups, and a children’s choir singing a song of welcome in both languages of Sri Lanka, as well as in English and Italian. There even were ceremonially dressed elephants on hand to greet the pontiff.
Francis’ language is likely to be seen as supportive of the idea of setting up some sort of truth commission.
Sri Lanka’s bloody war pitted the country’s largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority against a Tamil minority composed of Hindus and Muslims. Tamil Tiger rebels fought a 25-year civil war to demand an independent Tamil nation after decades of perceived discrimination by the government of the Sinhalese majority. United Nations 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.
Aside from crimes and abuses committed by the “Tamil Tiger” insurgency, which most international observers regard as a terrorist group, the government has been accused of deliberately shelling civilian and hospitals, blocking food and medicine for people caught in conflict zones, and also undercounting the true number of civilian casualties.
A January 2014 column in the Colombo Telegraph, one of the country’s leading newspapers, reported that Sri Lankan authorities were mulling the idea of setting up a Truth Commission to establish the reality about alleged war crimes, but that the country isn’t ready for it because “ethnic communities are further polarized now than before.”
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has cited Sri Lanka for alleged failure to properly investigate abuses during the civil war and to hold perpetrators accountable. A 2011 commission of Sri Lanka’s own government, called “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation,” also recommended setting up such a body.
Francis didn’t refer specifically to Sri Lanka’s refusal to cooperate with a UN investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the final months of the war. Although some on both sides of the divide would like to pursue accountability for human rights abuses, others fear such questions could prove politically and socially divisive.
The pontiff seemed to acknowledge the difficulty of such questions in his remarks, despite clearly suggesting that war crimes cannot simply be swept under the rug.
“It is no easy task,” Francis said, “to overcome the bitter legacy of injustices, hostility, and mistrust left by the conflict.”
“The great work of rebuilding,” the pope said, “must embrace improving infrastructures and meeting material needs, but also, and even more importantly, promoting human dignity, respect for human rights, and the full inclusion of each member of society.”
Francis will be in Asia for the next week, starting in Sri Lanka and finishing in the Philippines.
The pontiff arrived in Sri Lanka just five days after incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, credited with ending the civil war but seen as unable to promote reconciliation after the conflict’s close, was unseated by challenger Maithripala Sirisena, who made outreach to the country’s Hindu minority a cornerstone of his electoral program.
Despite their differences on other matters, both candidates were hesitant to embrace proposals for a South Africa-style “Truth and Reconciliation” Commission, which might lead to charges of human rights abuses, for fear that it might reopen wounds.
Francis seemed to suggest that an honest accounting of abuses committed during such a conflict is an essential ingredient of the peace process.
Moving past a legacy of conflict, the pope said, can only be accomplished by “overcoming evil with good” and “cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity, and peace.”
Although the pontiff said that his visit is “primarily pastoral,” his comments nevertheless will likely be seen as an indirect political statement, especially in a country that just five days ago elected a candidate advocating reconciliation and tolerance over an incumbent identified with a more hardline stance.
“Sri Lanka for many years knew the horrors of civil strife, and is now seeking to consolidate peace and to heal the scars of those years,” the pope said.
For that to happen, he said, all members of society “must be prepared to accept one another, to respect legitimate diversities, and to learn to live as one family,” the pope said.
Human rights advocates and critics of the former Rajapaksa government are likely to be cheered by the papal statement, as they have long clamored for a body to be established that could establish responsibility for civilian casualties and other atrocities committed during the war.
Pope Francis will be in Sri Lanka Tuesday and Wednesday before leaving for the Philippines. It’s his second trip to Asia since his election, and his seventh overall.
Later on Tuesday, the pontiff is scheduled to hold a session with leaders of Sri Lanka’s different religious traditions, including Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. According to a 2008 Gallup study, Sri Lanka is the third most religious nation in the world, with 99 percent of the population rating religion as important in daily life.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.