13 January 2015
Last updated at 10:11
Pope Francis has called for respect for human rights, inclusivity, and the “pursuit of truth” as he arrived in Sri Lanka to begin a six-day Asian tour.
The pontiff, who will later travel to the Philippines, plans to celebrate open-air masses during his trip.
It is the first papal visit to Sri Lanka since the end of a 26-year civil war in 2009.
The country’s new president has promised an end to growing repression of religious minorities.
Speaking on the tarmac of Colombo’s international airport shortly after he landed, the Pope said that peace could be found by “cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace”.
At the scene: Yogita Limaye, BBC News
All along the 20km highway leading up to the airport crowds have gathered on both sides of the road to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis.
Some have opened up umbrellas, a few elderly have brought portable seats along as they wait under the hot Colombo sun.
Lalith and Therese Fernando, a couple from Chilau that is nearly 100 km (60 miles) from here, took a train at 05:00 this morning to be here.”It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Lalith tells me.
Rebuilding Sri Lanka was more than just improving infrastructure, he said, “but also, and even more importantly, promoting human dignity, respect for human rights, and the full inclusion of each member of society”.
He also said that the “pursuit of truth” was important, “not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity”.
It is the second Asia tour for Pope Francis in less than six months
Pope Francis was greeted by the new Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena
The Pope is hoping to win new followers with his visit. He will also travel to the Philippines
The Pope was accompanied on the trip by a large group of reporters
A brutal decades-long civil war ended in 2009 when the army defeated separatist minority Tamil rebels. The United Nations said both sides committed atrocities against civilians.
The government consistently denied allegations that it was responsible for the deaths of many thousands of civilians in the final phase of that war. Last year the UN approved an inquiry into alleged war crimes.
Just over 7% of Sri Lanka’s population are Christian, mostly Catholic – but they include both Sinhalese and Tamils. Around 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, with 13% Hindus and 10% Muslims.
During the last papal visit 20 years ago, Pope John Paul II was boycotted by Buddhist leaders. But on this visit, the Pope is expected to hold a multi-faith prayer meeting which should include moderate Buddhist representatives.
The BBC’s religious affairs correspondent Caroline Wyatt says Buddhist fundamentalism has grown as a force in Sri Lanka since the last papal visit, with some waging a violent campaign against Muslims on the island.
Pope Francis wants to encourage the local church to seek partners in peace, so that all religions can stand united against any further violence or intimidation by religious extremists, says our correspondent.
Even the elephants were dressed up for the Pope’s visit
The visit has been eagerly awaited by Sri Lankan Catholics
It is a time of significant change in Sri Lanka, where Maithripala Sirisena took office as president on Friday.
He ended the decade-long rule of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a period which critics said had been marred by increasing corruption and authoritarianism.
Travelling with the Pope: Caroline Wyatt, BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent
Suddenly, Pope Francis is in front of me, looking at me, and I introduce myself in faltering Italian.
He is a commanding presence, and utterly unfazed by being filmed by so many cameras surrounding him. It must be something you get used to as pontiff.
What does he expect from this trip, I ask him. He bends down closer to offer an ear as he tries to decipher my appalling accent, and gives a big smile – “we’ll see”, he says, raising an eyebrow, and then “onwards!”
He gives my arm a warm pat as he goes on to the next row, never hurrying, but spending just long enough to make as many people on the plane feel they have had their time close-up with the Pope.
The Pope’s trip, which comes five months after a tour of South Korea, is being seen as an attempt to win new followers in Asia and to shore up support for the region’s millions of Catholics.
In the Philippines organisers are expecting one of the biggest crowds ever for a papal visit when Pope Francis conducts an open-air mass in the capital Manila.
Church officials say his visit to the archipelago nation will focus on “mercy and compassion” following a deadly 2013 typhoon, reports the AFP news agency.
A gust of wind blew his mantle as he delivered the speech in Sri Lanka
Crowds lined the streets of the capital, Colombo, to greet the Pope
Pope Francis’ visit comes just after the decade-long rule Mahinda Rajapaksa came to an end