Colombo: Sri Lanka’s Roman Catholic church today asked the government and the opposition not to exploit the maiden visit by Pope Francis as a “political tool”, amid indications that President Mahinda Rajapaksa may call for snap polls early next year.

Pope Francis, 77, is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka from January 13-15 during which he will held two separate mass, one in Colombo and another in the northwestern region of Mannar.

The Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, asked the government and the opposition to not politicise the visit.

“We hope that the visit will not be disturbed by an election campaign and politicians of both the government and opposition would not use it as a political tool,” he said.

Local media reports strongly suggest that Rajapaksa, who removed the two-term limit on the presidency after his 2010 re-election, wants to conduct polls early next year.

When asked whether it would be acceptable if the election is concluded before the visit, the Cardinal said: “It is a decision for the government to make.”

Papal visits to countries do not happen during election times as per the Vatican general rule.

Sri Lanka, a mainly Buddhist country, has a 7.5 per cent Christian population whose block vote could be decisive in the event of a close presidential election.

Pope Francis, after his arrival, will travel to the city in an open motorcade. President Rajapaksa would call on the pope the same evening, Cardinal Ranjith said.

Pope Francis will hold a mass in the Galle Face promenade opposite the President’s office next day before heading off to the sacred Madu church in Mannar in the north, he added.

The theme of the Pope’s visit was titled ‘Abide in Love’.

The last papal visit to the Buddhist majority Sri Lanka was in 1995 when Pope John Paul II visited the emerald island in January that year.

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