COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Pope Francis paid a surprise visit to a Buddhist temple on Wednesday, capping a trip to Sri Lanka where he told huge crowds that religions must unite to heal the country’s war wounds.
The only other visit by a pope to a Buddhist temple was made by Pope John Paul during a trip to Thailand in 1984.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the pope briefly stopped at Colombo’s Mahabodhi temple to meet Banagila Upatissa, a Buddhist leader who had invited him when they met on Tuesday at an inter-religious meeting.
“The pope listened with great respect” as the monks were singing and praying, Lombardi said. He said that in honour of the occasion, the monks opened a container holding Buddhist relics that is normally unsealed only once a year.
The spokesman said that during the pope’s 20-minute visit, which was not on his schedule, Francis listened intently as the monks explained aspects of their religion in a room where there was a statue of Buddha.
Francis, who has made inter-religious dialogue a plank of his papacy, has already been to mosques during trips to Istanbul and Jerusalem.
During his two-day trip to Sri Lanka - which is about 70 percent Buddhist, 13 percent Hindu, 10 percent Muslim and 7 percent Catholic - the pope has stressed the role of religion to help reconciliation after the 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 and killed up to 100,000 people.
Earlier, Francis gave Sri Lanka its first saint at a seafront Mass for more half a million people in Colombo, calling 17th century missionary Joseph Vaz a model of reconciliation.
He held up Vaz as an example of tolerance as Sri Lanka recovers from the war between mainly Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils.
Vaz was born in 1651 in India’s Goa, then a Portuguese colony. He travelled south at the age of 36, dressed as a beggar after hearing about the persecution of Catholics by the Dutch. He worked for years under the protection of a Buddhist king.
Also on Wednesday, Francis flew by helicopter to Madhu, in the north, to preach forgiveness for the “evil” committed in the war and visit a Catholic shrine that was shelled.
It was the first visit by a pope to the predominantly Hindu region that contains a large Catholic minority and was the scene of fierce fighting between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil Tiger rebels seeking a separate homeland.
In a prayer at the church of Our Lady of Madhu, Francis denounced the conflict that “tore open the heart” of Sri Lanka, and drove home the central message of his two-day trip - that religions needed to work together to heal the wounds of war.
“May all people here find inspiration and strength to build a future of reconciliation, justice and peace for all the children of this beloved land,” he said in English.
The shrine containing a 400-year old statue of Mary is the most venerated Catholic site on the island. It is also visited by followers of other religions, but was kept out of bounds for years by fighting.
After landing, the pope drove to the shrine in an open jeep, leaning out frequently to touch the heads of the faithful lining the roads, many using umbrellas for shade.
In 1999, shells slammed into the church, killing some 40 people who had sought refuge there. Since the end of the war, the north has undergone reconstruction, but divisions still run deep. The region gets few visits from world leaders.
The Vatican also said former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who invited the pope to make the visit to the country but was defeated in an election last week, paid a courtesy call to the pontiff at the Vatican embassy where he is staying.
Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez in COLOMBO and Ranga Sirilal in MADHU; Editing by Alison Williams