Pope Francis lands in Sri Lanka at start of Asian tour

COLOMBO - Pope Francis arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday to deliver a message of inter religious harmony that will resonate within the island nation recovering from years of ethnic conflict and across the world in the wake of the militant violence in Paris.

After landing at Colombo airport, the Pope was due to be greeted by Sri Lanka's new president at the start of a two-day visit, during which he will hold a public mass expected to draw one million people and canonise the island's first saint.

After Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, the Pope is due to visit the mainly Catholic Philippines before leaving Asia on Jan 19.

His visit, days after the surprise election of a new president, will focus on unity in a country still struggling to heal the wounds of a decades-long civil war that pitted government troops against Tamil separatist rebels.

The Argentine pope's second visit to Asia will also take in the Philippines, a bastion of Christianity in the region, where he is set to attract one of the biggest gatherings ever for a head of the Catholic Church.

But in mostly Buddhist Sri Lanka, which has seen a rise in religious violence in recent years, he will focus on the role of the Catholic Church in a diverse society.

Only around six per cent of the country's 20 million people is Catholic, but the religion is seen as a unifying force because it includes people from both the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil ethnic groups.

A smiling Francis was met on the tarmac by Sri Lanka's new President Maithripala Sirisena before meeting Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim leaders in Colombo. Mr Sirisena has pledged to protect religious freedoms and promised a new culture of tolerance on the island which was devastated by a 37-year ethnic conflict which ended in 2009.

A group of Muslim schoolgirls was among the flag-waving well-wishers at the airport to greet him, and traditional Sri Lankan dancers lined the red carpet.

On Wednesday, the pope will hold a public mass on the seafront that is expected to attract around a million people during which he will canonise Sri Lanka's first saint, a 17th century missionary.

He will also visit a small church in the jungle that was on the front line of the conflict that killed around 100,000 people. The Our Lady of Madhu church in the mainly Tamil north of the country provided sanctuary during the fighting, and is now a pilgrimage destination for Christians from across the ethnic divide.

The pope's trip comes just five months after he visited South Korea, signalling the huge importance the Vatican places on Asia and its potential for more followers. The region holds a special interest for Pope Francis, who as a young priest considered becoming a missionary in Japan.

On Thursday he will fly on to the Philippines, where anticipation has been building for months, with the pope dominating the media and sparking a merchandise frenzy.

The Philippines is one of the Church's modern success stories, counting roughly 80 per cent of the former Spanish colony's 100 million people as Catholics, which has helped to offset waning influence in Europe and the United States.