Papal visit to Sri Lanka to go ahead despite polls a week earlier

(Photo: REUTERS / Alessandro Di Meo / Pool)Pope Francis meets Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa (L) and his wife Shiranthi Rajapaksa (R) during a private audience at the Vatican October 3, 2014.

Sri Lanka's Catholic Church has denied claims that the scheduled January 13 to 15 visit of Pope Francis next year has been scrapped due to the presidential election scheduled for the preceding week.

The church reiterated that the first of Francis' two-country swing in Asia would go ahead and it also appealed to authorities to remove the image of the Pope from presidential election posters.

"We categorically state that the visit of the Holy Father will go ahead as scheduled," the Catholic Church said in a statement, Agence France-Presse reported. "We ask legislators not to make irresponsible statements and mislead people."

The papal visit had been in limbo for weeks since the Vatican announced Francis' first overseas trip for 2015 as Sri Lanka authorities looked to hold presidential elections in the second week of January.

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The date had been considered an auspicious one for President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is seeking an unprecedented third term. Rajapaksa, a Buddhist, earned widespread praise for ending a long-term strife in the island.

But church leaders earlier advised against holding a papal visit too close to the election, fearing that heightened emotions might be a cause for concern for the Pope and his entourage.

It was only a couple of months ago that the Vatican, as well as leaders from the Colombo archdiocese and the Sri Lankan government, confirmed that the papal visit would proceed as scheduled.

Among the highlights of Francis' trip to the island will be the canonization of the country's first saint.

One issue the church raised with to the government was the use of the Pope's photograph and other religious symbols on campaign posters, which it requested to be removed immediately.

The appeal was a reiteration of a request it relayed through political parties, which seemed to have been ignored, the statement said.

The posters showed Rajapaksa meeting with Francis during a recent audience.

The campaign materials were posted in Catholic-populated areas, seemingly to portray the president as an ally of Catholics who are a minority in the island nation.

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