Sri Lankan catholics urge Pope Francis to put off visit

A number of prominent Roman Catholic priests and laypeople in Sri Lanka are appealing to Pope Francis to put off a scheduled visit, saying the government is using the occasion as propaganda to imply the pope’s support for President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is seeking an unprecedented third term in office.
The pope is expected to arrive in Colombo, the capital, on Jan. 13, five days after an early presidential election declared by Mr. Rajapaksa. Francis is expected to canonize Joseph Vaz, a 17th-century priest and missionary, as the country’s first saint.
Hector Welgampola, a former editor of The Messenger, a Catholic newspaper, said in a blog post this week that the decision, announced Nov. 20, to hold the presidential election two years early, just before the papal visit, had “‘deeply hurt”‘ the country’s Catholics.

Posters and banners displayed in predominantly Catholic regions suggest that the pope has blessed Mr. Rajapaksa’s re-election. “‘With His Holiness’ blessings — you will be our president,”‘ one poster reads. Some show pictures of Mr. Rajapaksa and his wife meeting the pope at the Vatican in October.
“‘Political posters have made it a tool for election propaganda,”‘ Mr. Welgampola wrote. “‘Church leaders little realize the faith erosion caused by letting politics ruin the holiest event Catholics eagerly awaited for 303 years.”
The papal visit has divided the church establishment in Sri Lanka, which officially supports the government, with some priests objecting to the timing of Francis’ arrival. The Vatican usually does not schedule papal visits close to national elections, to avoid political complications.
The Archdiocese of Colombo, while confirming that the visit would take place as scheduled, asked the Sri Lankan authorities on Monday to remove election posters containing images of the pope and other symbols of the church.
The Rev. Leo Perera, the director of laity for the archdiocese, said in a letter to Sri Lankan bishops that the pope’s visit had been politicized and pointed out that postelection violence was common in Sri Lanka.
“‘Although His Holiness may not be concerned for his personal safety, his presence in a situation of turmoil and political strife will invariably sully the image of the papacy,”‘ Father Perera said. “‘Pressing ahead with the visit at this time will have more disastrous consequences for Catholics in Sri Lanka, with the impression being created that once more the church is favoring the president.”
Until last month, Mr. Rajapaksa was widely expected to win re-election. One day after he declared the early election, his health minister resigned in protest to run against him as an opposition candidate, and five other presidential loyalists also defected. Several parties in the ruling coalition have also quit the government, and election observers say the president faces a real contest now.
However, the challengers have to scramble before next month’s vote. Ruki Fernando, a Catholic human rights advocate, said in a letter to Francispublished on a citizen journalism website this week that his visit was being used to justify a shorter campaign season.
“‘This will severely limit the few opportunities opposition candidates and civil society has to engage in debates about issues around the elections,”‘ Mr. Fernando said.
About 6 percent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people are Roman Catholics, according to the Department of Census and Statistics. Most Sri Lankans are Buddhist, but there are significant populations of Muslims and Hindus as well. 
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