Halfway home and bonetired, Pope John Paul II brought an appeal for peace here Friday to a country bloodied by civil war, and an overture of brotherhood to Buddhist monks angry at his visit.
Looking wan and obviously sapped by an 11-hour flight from Australia, the 74-year-old pontiff took a 20-minute rest in a small church on his way in from the airport Friday afternoon.
Tens of thousands of people, many seeking shelter from the sun under bright umbrellas, lined the 22-mile route into the city, waving yellow and white flags from behind no-nonsense ranks of khaki-clad police. From his “Popemobile,” John Paul swept by temples of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority and past cows who are sacred to the large Hindu minority. About 7 percent of the people - about 1 million - are Roman Catholic.
With 15,000 police on pope duty, security was unprecedented in this island nation of 18 million, where violence is a fact of political life and a 12-year civil war has claimed more than 34,000 lives.
Addressing President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Sri Lankan notables in a welcoming ceremony at the downtown palace overlooking the placid Indian Ocean, the pope urged them to be “strong and persevering in efforts to find a just and peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict which has scarred the life of the nation in recent times.”
Among the worshipers at a seaside Mass Saturday morning, at which John Paul will beatify a 17th-century missionary, will be several thousand ethnic Tamils - all Catholics - who have come to the capital from the guerrilla-controlled Jaffna peninsula in the north.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority of 3.2 million, who complain of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.
A presidential candidate and more than 50 others died last year in a suicide bomb attack attributed to the Tigers, but the guerrillas have issued no threat against the pope. With the impending papal visit as a catalyst, the government and rebels agreed earlier this month to a truce.
Arriving to tropical sunshine after two chill, rainy days in Sydney, Australia, John Paul reached out to the island’s Buddhists. Some monks have protested John Paul’s description of Buddhism as “in large measure an atheistic system” in his best-selling book of reflections, “Crossing the Threshold of Peace.”