Rethinking the Pope’s Sri Lanka Visit


Sri Lanka’s highly anticipated presidential election will be held on January 8. The incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa will go for an unprecedented third term as challenger (and erstwhile member of Rajapaksa’s cabinent) Maithripala Sirisena tries to defeat him. Sirisena’s resignation as health minister and defection from the government came as a big surprise to the Rajapaksa regime. And, while the “common opposition” is hardly a cohesive entity, it seems clear that a Rajapaksa victory is by no means assured.

Interestingly, Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka just days after the election is held – from January 13-15. In light of the fact that Rajapaksa has become increasingly unpopular and that his coalition United People’s Freedom Alliance had begun to weaken, he called a snap presidential election two years early – so the pope’s visit had been planned well before Rajapaksa’s announcement this past November.

Several concerned individuals and groups have already implored the pope not to visit the war-torn island nation in January (here and here). Indeed, there is still good reason to believe that Rajapaksa will try to use Pope Francis’ visit for electoral gain. (The Catholic church in Sri Lanka has already raised concerns about campaign posters showing Rajapaksa’s image alongside the pope’s).

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Besides, even if Rajapaksa were to make no further attempts, what explains the fact that the Vatican didn’t decide to reschedule? There is a longstanding policy of the pope avoiding trips to a country one month before or after an election – which makes a lot of sense.

It seems clear that Pope Francis is deeply committed to issues such as social justice, human rights, and poverty alleviation. And, importantly, he’s not afraid of surprising some people. With this in mind, it might explain why his visit to Sri Lanka remains on schedule; he certainly isn’t immune to the fact that a visit of this nature immediately after a national election could have significant political implications – particularly in a country that is still recovering from a brutal civil war that lasted nearly three decades. Put another way, perhaps the Rajapaksa regime’s shortcomings (and there are many) are precisely why the pope has not changed his plans.

In the event of a Rajapaksa victory, would the pope use his visit to criticize the regime? Might the pope have already contemplated such a scenario? Such a critique would certainly be well received by a growing portion of the populace. Perhaps the worst possible scenario would involve a Rajapaksa victory and a perfunctory papal visit, as this would amount to a de facto endorsement of a regime whose record on human rights, inclusive governance and reconciliation is, to say the least, very disappointing.

Lastly, a papal visit could (at least temporarily) deter some human rights violations and other tensions that will inevitably arise after a closely fought election. Political violence and election law violations in Sri Lanka appear to be steadily rising – something that’s almost certainly been observed by the Vatican. We won’t know for another couple of weeks, but Pope Francis’ visit to Sri Lanka might not be such a bad thing after all.

Taylor Dibbert is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. and the author of Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.

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