COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — By visiting a famed Marian shrine in the north of Sri Lanka on Wednesday, situated in the heart of a major conflict zone during the country’s 30-year civil war, Pope Francis continued his push for peace and reconciliation in this Asian nation.

“There are families here today that suffered greatly in the long conflict which tore open the heart of Sri Lanka,” the pope said, urging his audience to pursue “reconciliation, justice, and peace.”

Sri Lanka’s civil war began in 1983, featuring cycles of combat between a government dominated by a Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the “Tamil Tigers,” an armed group backed by the Hindu Tamil minority. Overall, almost 70,000 Sri Lankans are believed to have died in the fighting.

Many local observers see the pope’s decision to make a special outing to the north, where the Tamil minority is concentrated and where fighting was most intense, as an indirect way of calling on the country to step up efforts at rebuilding, economic development, and political inclusion.

Francis’ Jan. 12-19 outing to Sri Lanka and the Philippines is his second trip to Asia, and also the second one in which reconciliation of a divided nation has been a major theme.

Last August, the pontiff traveled to South Korea and repeatedly voiced support for closer ties with its northern neighbor, saying all Koreans, North and South, are “brothers and sisters, members of one family, one people.”

Francis has delivered a similar message in Sri Lanka, where perhaps the most frequent substantive noun he’s cited in virtually every speech has been “reconciliation.”

The Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, located roughly 155 miles north of the capital city of Colombo, was an especially apt setting for the pope to make that case.

Catholicism is the lone faith in Sri Lanka with a significant following on both sides of the ethnic and linguistic divide between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority, and Catholics in both camps are drawn to the shrine. It also draws significant numbers of Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim pilgrims.

During the civil war, both sides officially accepted the shrine as a demilitarized zone, promoting large number of refugees to seek shelter there. By the fall of 1999, more than 10,000 people were camped in the surrounding area.

On Nov. 20, 1999, the area was shelled, killing 44 people, injuring more than 60, and causing physical damage to the shrine. Both sides blamed the other for the assault.

For a brief period in 2008, the statue was removed from the shrine for safe-keeping, returning after the government scored a decisive victory over the Tamil forces in 2009 that brought the war to an end.

“No Sri Lankan can forget the tragic events associated with this place,” Francis said.

The pontiff said that despite the horrors of the war, Mary never “left the side of her suffering Sri Lankan children.”

“In the wake of so much hatred, violence, and destruction, we want to thank her for continuing to bring us Jesus, who alone has the power to heal open wounds and to restore peace to broken hearts,” he said.

It’s equally important, the pope said, to ask God for the “the grace to make reparation for our sins and for all the evil which this land has known,” leading to “true remorse and true repentance.”

Francis begin his visit to Sri Lanka by insisting that establishing the truth about the conflict must be part of any reconciliation effort, taken by many observers as a signal that Francis supports proposals to establish a “Truth Commission” about the civil war.

Tuesday night, a Vatican spokesman did not rule out that interpretation, but also insisted that the pope’s meaning should not be pushed beyond the actual words he used.

If something isn’t said in a papal speech, the Rev. Federico Lombardi said, “there’s a reason.”

Francis urged all sides of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious divide to build up “a renewed spirit of reconciliation and friendship.”

That may be a tall order after 10 years of rule by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who by most accounts made stoking the ethnic and religious divisions of the country a key element of his political strategy.

One longtime observer told Crux that the civil war was mostly an ethnic conflict between Sinhalese and Tamils, with little real religious component. Rajapaksa, however, encouraged the emergence of several hardline Buddhist groups that have injected a note of religious tension previously unfamiliar in a mostly tolerant society.

For that reason, many Sri Lankans believe the pope’s brief stop may give a boost to the man who unseated Rajapaksa, new Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena.

For one thing, they say, Sirisena’s campaign rhetoric was about unity, reconciliation, and healing, terms that Francis has used repeatedly during his trip, which some locals have taken as an indirect vote of confidence.

For another, this was Sirisena’s first major event since taking office just five days ago, and the fact that it’s perceived to have gone well may extend the climate of national exuberance that followed his surprise win.

“If nothing else, it may mean his honeymoon will have a longer shelf life,” one observer said.

Thursday morning, Francis will visit another Marian shrine located roughly 20 miles outside the Sri Lankan capital city, this one built shortly after World War II after the then-Archbishop of Colombo had vowed to do so if the country were spared the horrors of the war.

Immediately afterward, Francis will fly from Sri Lanka to the Philippines to begin the second leg of his week-long Asian journey.