By Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez
COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's Catholic Church has urged the government not to use a forthcoming visit by Pope Francis to help its re-election campaign after media reported posters had appeared depicting the pontiff blessing President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Rajapaksa is seeking an unprecedented third term in a snap poll on Jan. 8, just days before the pope is due to visit Sri Lanka.
Ravaya, a local Sinhala paper, published over the weekend a photograph of a campaign poster that had superimposed photos of the president and the pope to depict them smiling at one other with the caption: "Blessings of the Holy Father; You are our president, victory for you."
Other local media reported similar such posters and cut-outs of the pope had appeared in election posters and pamphlets.
"It has been brought to our notice that the political posters and cut-outs with the picture of the Holy Father have appeared in some places in the country," the committee of the Sri Lankan Catholic Church that is preparing for the papal visit said in a statement.
"We earnestly request respective authorities and persons to remove those political posters and cut-outs immediately and urge all the political groups to refrain from using either the Holy Father or His visit to Sri Lanka for the political campaign of the presidential election."
Rajapaksa had been expected to win the election easily, but campaigning has become more heated since Health Minister Mithripala Sirisena resigned on Friday and announced he would run against the president.
The pope will spend two days in Sri Lanka from Jan. 12 before moving on to the Philippines, Asia's largest Catholic country. Catholics are a tiny minority in the mostly Buddhist Sri Lanka.
During his visit to Sri Lanka, which ended a 26-year-old civil war ended in 2009 with the military defeat of Tamil Tiger separatists, the pope will visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, one of the most important Catholic sites on the island.
Rajapaksa has remained a popular leader despite foreign criticism over his sweeping powers and human rights record, but his government's inaction on issues like post-war reconciliation with the minority Tamils and attacks by extremist Buddhist groups on churches and mosques have made him unpopular among ethnic minorities.
Campaign posters are not officially allowed under Sri Lanka's election laws, but political parties frequently use them even if they cannot admit to it.
"It is a definite election violation. Using a religious symbol for political mileage is ethically also wrong. How can a civil society agree using the religious symbol for an election?" Keerthi Tennakoon, executive director of Campaign for Free and Fair Elections, a local group that is monitoring the campaign, told Reuters.
Election Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya said he will request the police to remove such posters, which he can do once the political parties have officially submitted their presidential candidates.
(Writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Susan Fenton)