Catholic church leaders in Sri Lanka are pushing ahead with preparations for Pope Francis' Jan. 13-15 trip to their country, banking on the politicians' promise that presidential elections scheduled five days ahead of the papal visit would be free of violence.
"There is no change in the schedule of papal visit events," Fr. Cyril Gamini Fernando, national director of Catholic social communications in Sri Lanka, told NCR on the phone from Colombo.
He said leading candidates have assured Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo and Catholic bishops in the south Asian country that "there would be no trouble" after the Jan. 8 polls and that "a peaceful atmosphere would prevail for the visit of the Holy Father."
Incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, the common opposition candidate, are considered the two strongest candidates for the nation's top post in polls that allot only about a month to campaigning.
"We need to have faith and believe in what they both told us," Ranjith told Sri Lanka's Catholic weekly newspaper, Messenger.
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"Both candidates said that whatever their status is after the elections, either as the winner or as the loser, they will both welcome the Holy Father when he steps down at the Airport," Ranjith added.
Ranjith said since Rajapaksa invited Francis for a state visit, the president "gave his personal assurance that ... he will not allow anything untoward to happen during the Papal Visit."
In July, the Vatican announced that Francis would visit Sri Lanka, where the country's 1.2 million Catholics make up about 6 percent of the population. The pope chose to focus his three-day apostolic visit on the theme, "Abide in Love."
After arriving in Colombo on Jan. 13, he will visit with Rajapaksa before leading canonization rites for the 17th-century missionary priest Blessed Joseph Vaz, Sri Lanka's first saint.
The pope is also slated to travel to the northwest region to pray with pilgrims at the popular Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu in Mannar, a district heavily affected by the 30-year civil war with Tamil rebels that the government won in 2009 during Rajapaksa's first term as president.
Priests and leading lay members of the Sri Lanka church expressed concern over politicization of the visit. They cited problems of election violence and misuse of the papal visit for campaigning. (Rajapaksa is seeking an unprecedented third term.)
In a blog post titled "An appeal from a Sri Lankan Catholic to Pope Francis: Please don't come," human rights activist Ruki Fernando wrote, "In this first week after nominations [for president], at least 6 incidents of shootings have been reported," targeting mostly people connected with opposition parties.
An opposition politician was shot within hours of the announcement of elections, Fernando added.
Fr. Leo Perera, who directs the Sri Lanka church's lay apostolate, wrote the bishops of Sri Lanka ahead of their December meeting, proposing postponement of the papal visit.
He said the Catholic church would look "anti-national" if the attention of security forces needed to keep peace during the usually violent post-election period is diverted to providing security for the papal visit.
"Pressing ahead with the visit at this time will have more disastrous consequences for the Catholics in Sri Lanka with the impression being created that once more the Church is favouring the President," Perera wrote.
Gamini Fernando told NCR that the bishops in November urged all political parties not to use the pope's visit as political propaganda for the presidential polls and to take down pictures or online posts showing candidates with the pope to imply his support.
However, to think that campaigners would heed such an appeal is "naïve," Perera wrote the bishops.
Bishop Norbert Andradi of Anuradhapura, in north central Sri Lanka, reportedly favors postponing the papal visit, but he could not be reached for comment.
In his interview with Messenger, Ranjith explained the significance of the papal visit for Sri Lanka: "The visit of a Pope to a country is very rare and if it is to a small Asian country like ours then indeed it has to be a blessing and no other."
He said the blessing is "for the country as a whole and not just for us Catholics ... transcending party politics and religious divisions."
He advised Catholics "to use the Papal Visit to bring about peace and harmony as the country heads for a period of uncertainty in view of the Presidential Polls."
[N.J. Viehland is a correspondent for National Catholic Reporter based in the Philippines.]