Pope Francis has been to a former war zone during his visit to Sri Lanka, denouncing what he called the “evil” conflict that “tore open” the country’s heart.
It was the first visit by a pope to the mainly Hindu region that has a large Catholic minority.
He travelled to a Catholic shrine that was shelled in 1999, killing dozens of people who had sought refuge – and called on all people in the area to work together to heal the wounds of war.
In a prayer at the church of Our Lady of Madhu, the pope, addressing tens of thousands of followers who had gathered at the site, said:
“May all people here find inspiration and strength to build a future of reconciliation, justice and peace for all the children of this beloved land.”
The shrine is revered by both Tamil and Sinhalese Catholics.
“There are certain people who like being with the crowd. There are certain officials who don’t like to be with the crowd. You see, there are people who are very humble, they do not take caste or creed or anything like that. He is one of them,” said Felecia Roderigo, a Sri Lankan living in Canada.
Although northern Sri Lanka has seen much rebuilding since the war between mainly Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils, the region receives few visits from world leaders.
Earlier, Francis gave Sri Lanka its first saint at a waterfront Mass for more half a million people in Colombo, calling 17th century missionary Joseph Vaz a model of reconciliation after the war.
On Monday Pope Francis called on the Buddhist-majority country to expose the truth about the war, which claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives until it ended with the army’s crushing defeat of Tamil rebels in 2009.
The island voted its wartime leadership out of office last week
The pope is due to fly to the Philippines on Thursday as part of his week-long tour to Asia.