Sri Lanka says papal visit on despite snap polls

Sri Lanka says papal visit on despite snap polls

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Pope Francis will visit Sri Lanka as planned in January, officials said Sunday despite signs of concern from the Vatican that the government intends to exploit the trip for political gain as it readies for snap elections.

"Pope Francis has graciously accepted the president's invitation, and the Vatican has confirmed that His Holiness will be visiting Sri Lanka in January 2015," the office of President Mahinda Rajapakse said in a statement.

It did not mention the snap presidential elections, which a government minister last month said will be held in early January, just before the pontiff's visit during January 13-15.

The official Vatican Network said last week there were concerns about the papal visit going ahead given the proximity of the elections.

"The Church asks the vote to be postponed at least to the end of January 2015, to avoid any kind of (political) exploitation," the news outlet reported.

But the statement from Rajapakse's office said that authorities were going ahead with arrangements for the papal visit.

Roman Catholics account for around six per cent of the population in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, and observers believe the Christian minority's block vote could be decisive in the event of a close election.

The authorities are yet to formally announce the snap poll, but government ministers have said Rajapakse will seek a fresh mandate in early January.

Official sources say that January 7, 8 and 9 are seen as astrologically auspicious for Rajapakse, but that dates in March are also being considered.

Rajapakse's popularity surged among Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese community when he crushed a Tamil separatist rebellion in May 2009 to end a 37-year-long Tamil separatist war.

But his party's popularity has fallen in recent months and its share of the vote plummeted by over 20 percentage points in local elections in September.

Last month Rajapakse cut taxes and increased salaries, subsidies and welfare spending in a populist budget aimed at boosting his bid to win a third term.

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