Drums, dancers, elephants: Sri Lanka gives Pope Francis colourful welcome

Pope Francis arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday to start a highly anticipated six-day visit to Asia that will also take him to the Philippines. Here are some glimpses of his trip as it unfolds:

Running late

 Drums, dancers, elephants: Sri Lanka gives Pope Francis colourful welcome

Wind blows Pope Francis' mantle as he delivers his speech at Colombo's International airport, Sri Lanka. AP

Some in the crowds may have grumbled that Pope Francis' convoy had passed too quickly on Tuesday morning, or that he hadn't stopped to greet them, but the pope took a long time to drive the 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Colombo's airport into the city.

Even with traffic blocked off, the lengthy airport arrival ceremony, combined with his frequent stops in the heat to greet and bless people in the crowds lining the convoy's route, had him running more than an hour behind schedule.

By midday, the pope had to cancel a meeting with Sri Lanka's bishops. He's expected to reschedule it for later in his two-day trip to the island nation.

It was, in some ways, a very Francis-like choice: to spend more time with ordinary people, and less with the pillars of church power, though the cancellation might have also been a nod to a 78-year-old pope, just off a long flight, needing to rest up after a hot spin into town.

"He is a down-to-earth pope," said Felicitas Ivy Dissanayake, an 80-year-old woman who was waiting earlier on Tuesday for the pope's arrival. Francis was to be the third pope she had seen in Sri Lanka.

He "is on a mission to bring peace to the world. And we are thrilled to have him," she said.

Associated Press

Associated Press

Voices from the crowd

The thousands who lined Pope Francis' route from the airport to Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, had various reasons for joining in the excitement, some focused on hopes of ending religious divisions and reconciling the country after a decades-long civil war that ended in 2009.

Here's what some had to say:

"This is a good opportunity to unify the country after a war and bring together a society divided with an election. It will give strength to the new government at a time we are free from an autocracy and on a new path." — Saman Priyankara, 42.

"I came to see a world religious leader, though I am a Buddhist. I believe inter-religious harmony will be strengthened." — Yasas Alexander, 40.

"This is like Jesus Christ himself coming to Sri Lanka. ... His simple lifestyle is not fake. It is a challenge to us and the Church hierarchy. I think his vision comes from Christ himself." — Ranjit Solis, 60.

Associated Press

Associated Press

On the road to Colombo

Pope Francis stood inside a small white vehicle as he rode from the airport to Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital. Francis has eschewed the bullet-proof "popemobiles" used by his predecessors, and while there was an extended windscreen in front of him Tuesday, he could reach out through the sides to the thousands who stood along the road waving.

At times, the vehicle stopped so he could greet the crowds, and he touched and blessed the children who were hoisted toward him.

Some, though, felt the convoy went too quickly.

"It would have been good if he had traveled a bit more slowly," said Nimal Solis, who had waited for hours to see the pope and was disappointed when his vehicle passed without stopping. "But still, we saw him. This is a lifetime opportunity."

'All must have a voice'

In a speech at his airport arrival ceremony, Pope Francis talked about Sri Lanka's efforts to reconcile after years of civil strife:

"I am convinced that the followers of the various religious traditions have an essential role to play in the delicate process of reconciliation and rebuilding which is taking place in this country. For that process to succeed, all members of society must work together. All must have a voice. All must be free to express their concerns, their needs, their aspirations and their fears."

Associated Press

Associated Press

Colorful arrival

Pope Francis stepped off an Alitalia plane shortly after 9 a.m. on a bright sunny morning in Colombo. He was greeted first by a young boy and a girl who gave him a large garland of yellow and white flowers. He then walked on a long red carpet as colorful Sri Lankan dancers performed on both sides, accompanied by rhythmic drumming.

Crowds and elephants

By 7:30 am, hundreds of people were waiting on the road just outside the airport in Colombo to get a glimpse of Pope Francis. Families were sitting on mats they had set out, sipping occasionally from water bottles.

And then, there was something more unusual: a procession of decorated elephants sauntered up the road, heading to the airport. Presumably, they would soon be greeting the pope.

Associated Press

Associated Press

Catholic belt

Catholics are a small minority in Sri Lanka, but Pope Francis would be forgiven for thinking otherwise during his drive from the airport to Colombo.

He passed a series of Catholic churches along the airport road and dozens of shrines — small roadside structures, often with glassed-in statues of saints dressed in silks and covered with jewelry.

Sri Lanka's so-called Catholic belt, where many towns and villages have large Catholic communities, begins just north of Colombo and continues north past the airport for hundreds of miles along the coast. Most of Sri Lanka's Catholics have long lived on the coast, where Portuguese missionaries concentrated their work in the 16th century.

By the numbers

Catholics make up slightly more than 6 percent of Sri Lanka's population of 21 million, according to the government. They are by far the largest Christian denomination in the country. Other Christians make up just 1.3 percent of the population, which is mostly Buddhist.

Associated Press

Updated Date: Jan 13, 2015 16:21:18 IST