In an oft-repeated message to interreligious groups, Pope Francis stressed again that believers must unite in condemning violence and insist that religion never be used to justify warfare. “For the sake of peace, religious beliefs must never be allowed to be abused in the cause of violence and war,” the Pope told Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and Christian leaders during his Jan. 12-15 trip to Sri Lanka. “We must be clear and unequivocal in challenging our communities to live fully the tenets of peace and coexistence found in each religion, and to denounce acts of violence when they are committed.” The Pope made his remarks to a group of interreligious leaders on the first day of his apostolic visit to Sri Lanka. He arrives just five years after the country concluded a nearly 30-year civil war between Sinhala nationalists and Tamil separatists which claimed at least 60,000 lives. Although Sri Lanka is a mostly Buddhist country — with Christians accounting for just eight percent of its 20.4 million people — Pope Francis is the third pontiff to visit the country. Pope Paul VI made a visit in 1970, and Pope St. John Paul II visited 20 years ago in 1995. Tuesday’s event included remarks by several religious leaders, expressing their hope for peace in Sri Lanka and throughout the world. A local bishop offered a prayer that the nation may “be united as one family,” living up to its calling from God. A leading Sri Lankan imam referenced the recent attacks by Muslim terrorists in both France and Pakistan. “Islam has no relationship with regard to such practices and evil conduct and deeds,” he said, adding that terrorists and extremists “have used many religions as a shelter” for their evil deeds throughout the years. During his remarks to the religious leaders, Pope Francis voiced his desire to reaffirm the Catholic Church's “sincere respect for you, your traditions and beliefs.” “I hope,” he added, “that my visit will help to encourage and deepen the various forms of interreligious and ecumenical cooperation which have been undertaken in recent years.” These developments take on “a particular significance and urgency in Sri Lanka,” he said. “For too many years the men and women of this country have been victims of civil strife and violence. What is needed now is healing and unity, not further conflict and division.” “It is my hope that interreligious and ecumenical cooperation will demonstrate that men and women do not have to forsake their identity, whether ethnic or religious, in order to live in harmony with their brothers and sisters.” “Above all, at this moment of your nation’s history, how many people of good will are seeking to rebuild the moral foundations of society as a whole?” Pope Francis asked. “May the growing spirit of cooperation between the leaders of the various religious communities find expression in a commitment to put reconciliation among all Sri Lankans at the heart of every effort to renew society and its institutions.” After his Sri Lankan visit, the Pope will fly to the Philippines, where he will visit through Jan. 19. In stark contrast to Sri Lanka, 86 percent of the Philippines' 93.4 million people identify as Catholic. While the country has not known as much political unrest as Sri Lanka recently, the Philippines has been ravaged by several typhoons, earthquakes and other natural disasters in recent years.
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