Pope Francis has arrived in Sri Lanka to begin a six-day Asian tour.
The pontiff, who will later travel to the Philippines, plans to celebrate open-air masses during his trip.
It is the first papal visit to Sri Lanka since the end of a 26-year civil war in 2009.
Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s new president, has promised an end to growing repression of religious minorities.
Speaking on the tarmac of Colombo’s international airport shortly after he landed, Pope Francis said that peace could be found by “cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace”.
Rebuilding Sri Lanka was more than just improving infrastructure, the pontiff said, “but also, and even more importantly, promoting human dignity, respect for human rights, and the full inclusion of each member of society”.
Pope Francis also said that the “pursuit of truth” was important, “not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity”.
The government consistently denied allegations that it was responsible for the deaths of many thousands of civilians in the final phase of that war. Last year the UN approved an inquiry into alleged war crimes.
Just over 7% of Sri Lanka’s population is Christian, mostly Catholic – but they include both Sinhalese and Tamils. Around 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, with 13% Hindus and 10% Muslims.
During the last papal visit 20 years ago, Pope John Paul II was boycotted by Buddhist leaders.
On this visit, Pope Francis is expected to hold a multi-faith prayer meeting which should include moderate Buddhist representatives.
Buddhist fundamentalism has grown as a force in Sri Lanka since the last papal visit, with some waging a violent campaign against Muslims on the island.
Pope Francis wants to encourage the local church to seek partners in peace, so that all religions can stand united against any further violence or intimidation by religious extremists.
It is a time of significant change in Sri Lanka, where Maithripala Sirisena took office as president on January 9.
Maithripala Sirisena ended the decade-long rule of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a period which critics said had been marred by increasing corruption and authoritarianism.
Pope Francis’ trip, which comes five months after a tour of South Korea, is being seen as an attempt to win new followers in Asia and to shore up support for the region’s millions of Catholics.
In the Philippines organizers are expecting one of the biggest crowds ever for a papal visit when Pope Francis conducts an open-air mass in the capital Manila.
Church officials say Pope Francis’ visit to the archipelago nation will focus on “mercy and compassion” following a deadly 2013 typhoon, reports the AFP news agency.
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