Pope Francis lands in Sri Lanka for Asian tour, headed to Philippines next

by Staff |

(REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi)Pope Francis leads the First Vespers and Te Deum prayers in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican December 31, 2014.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Pope Francis landed in Sri Lanka Tuesday, Jan. 13, for the start of his weeklong tour across Asia. The pontiff's goal is to help restore relations between religious and ethnic groups, according to reports.

The Pope's tour began in Sri Lanka, which is Buddhist in its majority. While there he plans to facilitate ethnic harmony between the Sinhalese and other minorities which have had tense relations for years. He will canonize Joseph Vaz, the country's first saint, for his role in revitalizing the Catholic Church during the dark days of Christian persecution in the 17th century, Reuters reported.

The Catholic leader also plans to visit Our Lady of Madhu, a church in northern Sri Lanka, on Wednesday. The church service is expected to host over 500,000 people.

"This is a holy shrine for all people in Sri Lanka; there is no religious difference shown," church administrator Emilianuspillai Santhiapillai told Agence France-Presse. "Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims all come here for the harmonious and peaceful atmosphere."

After his stop in Sri Lanka the Pope will head to the Philippines, where millions of Catholics are already excited about the visit.

"Filipinos are excited about the visit because people have a lot of problems and have been through a lot of calamities," retired government employee Josephine Graza told The Associated Press in Manila. "They want to see the pope so their heavy hearts can be relieved, so their problems can be bearable."

Pope Francis will visit the eastern Leyte province, which was battered by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 and left many dead and thousands more homeless.

Reuters contributed to this report.