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Hundreds of thousands attend Pope's Sri Lankan seafront mass

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(GlobalPost/GlobalPost)

Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans crowded the Colombo seafront on Wednesday to take part in an open-air mass by Pope Francis, in one of the biggest public gatherings the city has ever witnessed.

The pope kissed the altar at the start of the mass on Colombo's Galle Face Green, where a priest began the ceremony with a reading.

Many worshippers had waited all night for a glimpse of Francis, who will canonise Sri Lanka's first saint during the first papal visit to the island in two decades.

The Argentine pope has focused on post-war reconciliation during his visit, which comes just days after an election that exposed bitter divisions and saw the surprise exit of strongman president Mahinda Rajapakse.

On Tuesday, Francis urged respect for human rights in Sri Lanka and said the "pursuit of truth" was necessary to heal the wounds of a 37-year civil war, weighing into a fierce debate over the investigation of alleged abuses under Rajapakse.

The pontiff'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-ever gatherings for a head of the Catholic Church.

A mainly Buddhist country, Sri Lanka has a much smaller Catholic community and the pope is expected to preach a message of interfaith harmony during his mass on Wednesday, which has been declared a national holiday.

Worshippers began lining up late Tuesday on Galle Face Green, where a large stage had been set up for the mass.

It is the highest-profile celebration at the landmark site since Rajapakse led a victory parade in 2009 after the end of the war.

- Sri Lanka's first saint -

Many clutched photographs of loved ones who could not be there, among them 54-year-old Srimathi Fernando, whose husband is recovering from a heart attack.

"I came early to grab a spot in front so that I can show this picture to the Holy Father and get a blessing for him," she told AFP.

As a choir sang hymns to welcome him, the pope gave blessings to a group of people in wheelchairs who had been helped through the crowds, before moving to the stage, flanked by two priests.

During Wednesday's mass, the pope will canonise Sri Lanka's Joseph Vaz, a 17th century missionary from Goa credited with reviving the Catholic church on the island at a time of persecution by Dutch colonisers.

Vaz travelled from village to village ministering to Catholics from both the Tamil and the majority Sinhalese ethnic groups, disguised as a beggar because the Dutch had banned Catholic priests from the island.

By the time of his death in 1711 he had largely rebuilt the Catholic Church, earning him the title "Apostle of Sri Lanka".

Pope Francis will then head to a small church in the jungle that was on the front lines of the conflict between government troops and guerrillas seeking a separate homeland for the country's Tamil minority.

The Our Lady of Madhu church in the mainly Tamil north provided sanctuary during the fighting, and is now a pilgrimage destination for Christians from across the ethnic divide.

Only around six percent of Sri Lanka's 20-million-strong population is Catholic, but the religion is seen as a unifying force because it includes people from both the Tamil and majority Sinhalese ethnic groups.

On Tuesday the pope met with Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim leaders and urged them to work together for reconciliation, saying religion should never be a cause for violence.

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.

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.

He will meet survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, one of the Church's modern success stories, counting roughly 80 percent of the former Spanish colony's 100 million people as Catholics.

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