Pope’s visit prompts release of more than 600 Sir Lankan prisoners

Prompted by Pope Francis’ visit and in keeping with the ongoing theme of reconciliation, more than 600 men and women were released from prisons throughout the island nation of Sri Lanka on Wednesday.
The released prisoners “were minor offenders and those above the age of 75,” prisons spokesman Thushara Upuldeniya said Jan. 14.
Of the 612 prisoners released from 28 prisons, 575 were men and 37 were women.
Upuldeniya noted that they were released under a “special presidential pardon” to mark the Holy Father’s visit.
The prisoners’ release coincides with the theme of reconciliation, which has been at the center of Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to Sri Lanka, which still healing from nearly three decades of civil war.
“The pope is coming at an auspicious time,” said Andrew Mann, charge d’affaires at the US embassy in Sri Lanka, speaking with CNA on Jan. 14 at the canonization of Saint Joseph Vaz.
“He’s bringing a message of peace and reconciliation,” Mann added, remarking on “the hundreds of thousands of people from all religious groups and ethnic groups, here to celebrate the pope’s message.”
One of the key events on the Pope’s agenda, more than half a million people attended the canonization Mass for the 17th century missionary said at Galle Face Green in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city.
Pope Francis’ visit to the island nation comes less than six years after the end of an ethnic conflict which claimed the lives of an estimated 80,000-100,000 people. From 1983-2009, the island was gripped by intermittent war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers, who sought an independent Tamil state in the northeast of the country. Tensions between the country’s two largest ethnic groups, the Tamils and Sinhalese, played a significant role in the conflict.
In his homily for the canonization, Pope Francis reiterated the theme of reconciliation, calling the nation’s Christians to “be confirmed in their faith and make an ever greater contribution to peace, justice and reconciliation in Sri Lankan society.”
“This is what Christ asks of you. This is what Saint Joseph teaches you. This is what the Church needs of you,” the pope said.
This theme of reconciliation extended beyond the words of the Holy Father. The vestments for the Mass, for instance, were made by widows of the soldiers who died during the civil war.
After Mass, Pope Francis traveled by helicopter to the north of the country to visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Rosary in Madhu. Greeted by 500,000 pilgrims, the Holy Father reflected on the need for healing, looking to Mary as an example of forgiveness.
By visiting both the north and south of Sri Lanka, Fr. Shamindra Jayawardena, O.S.B. said, the Pope “has already joined both the south and the north, both communities, together.”
The 17th century Marian shrine, established amid the Dutch invasion and persecution of the Catholic Church, is a main pilgrimage site for Catholics in Sri Lanka and is a symbol of reconciliation.
Father Jayawardena noted that both Sinhalese and Tamils frequent the shrine, “coming to join hand in hand.”
“Madhu has been a place for all Sri Lankans, all groups, all ethnic groups,” he said. “It is place of reconciliation, because Our Blessed Mother brings all her children together, and the one shepherd Who is Jesus Christ.”
Over the course of his visit, beginning on the evening of Jan. 12, Pope Francis has met with various pilgrims and political officials, and took part in an inter-religious gathering. Weather permitting, the Holy Father will conclude his visit to Sri Lanka Jan. 15, at which point he will depart for the Philippines.
Sister Prumelie Fernando of the Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help stressed that the people of Sri Lanka, both northern and southern, are still in need of reconciliation.
“People are ready to reconcile themselves,” she said. “They are ready to accept these challenges.”

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