Pope Francis is to depart for Sri Lanka and the Philippines this evening, marking the first trip by a pope to south Asia in 15 years.
He will be welcomed in Sri Lanka tomorrow morning by the country’s new president, Maithripala Sirisena, who was only sworn in on Friday after beating the long-standing incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The Pope’s arrival comes as President Sirisena said he would investigate allegations that his predecessor sought to retain control of power by organising a coup.
During his three days in the country the Pope will canonise Sri Lanka’s first saint, Blessed Joseph Vaz, an Oratorian priest and missionary during the Dutch occupation of the 17th century.
He will also visit Sri Lanka’s most revered Marian shrine, the sanctuary of Our Lady of the Rosary at Madhu, in the north of the country.
During the civil war the 400-year-old shrine housed tens of thousands of refugees. At one point in the war shelling killed about 40 people there.
Commentators have suggested Pope Francis will call for reconciliation at the shrine between the majority Sinhalese ethnic group and the Tamils in the north. The shrine is revered by Sinhalese and Tamil Catholics.
The Pope will also meet Buddhist leaders in Colombo amid growing concern about Buddhist fundamentalism. One group led by monks, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), has called on Francis to apologise for colonialism.
During his three days in the Philippines, meanwhile, the Pope will spend one day in Tacloban, the region devastated by typhoon Haiyan.
He will have lunch with survivors and meet priests and religious at a cathedral wrecked by the typhoon.
In Manila Pope Francis will meet families whose members have been separated by economic migration and will address a gathering young people.
The Pope is likely to draw millions of pilgrims during his trip. When St John Paul II visited in 1995 his final Mass was attended by five million people.