Church: Papal visit not part of Sri Lanka politics

AP News
Posted: Nov 24, 2014 6:18 AM

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka's Roman Catholic church said that Pope Francis' visit in January should not be politicized and that images of him should be removed from presidential election billboards.

The Rev. Cyril Gamini Fernando made the comment in a statement Sunday, noting that election billboards with Francis' image have appeared. He did not name the candidate, but some billboards that show the pope posing with President Mahinda Rajapaksa have been put up in several parts of the country.

Rajapaksa is seeking a third term in the Jan. 8 election, which comes five days before Francis arrives in Sri Lanka for a three-day visit. The billboards are exhibited in areas where Catholics live in large numbers.

After a revolt in the ruling party, the president's main challenger will be his former health minister, and support from the country's 1.2 million Catholics will be crucial.

More than 70 percent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people are Buddhists.

The billboards are likely being used to portray Rajapaksa — a Buddhist — as a conciliatory leader amid allegations that his administration promotes Buddhist extremism against Christians and Muslims.

During his visit, Francis is scheduled to declare a 17th century priest Sri Lanka's first saint.