Church tells Sri Lanka not to exploit pope for polls

 The Roman Catholic church on Friday urged Sri Lanka not to politicise a visit by the pope in January amid reports that President Mahinda Rajapakse may hold a snap election early next year.

Colombo: The Roman Catholic church on Friday urged Sri Lanka not to politicise a visit by the pope in January amid reports that President Mahinda Rajapakse may hold a snap election early next year.

Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, the head of the Catholic church on the island, called on Rajapakse`s government not to use Pope Francis` visit from January 13-15 as a "political tool". 

His remarks came amid intense media speculation that Rajapakse, who removed the two-term limit on the presidency after his 2010 re-election, was preparing a poll early next year.

"We have told the president that it is not appropriate for a pope to visit a country that is in the middle of an election campaign," the cardinal told reporters in Colombo. 

"The visit should not be used as a political tool by the government, or the opposition, or anybody else for that matter."

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

Asked if it would be acceptable if a snap election is concluded before the papal visit, Cardinal Ranjith said: "The government has to decide on those things.... It must be a visit free of politics. That is the position of the Catholic Bishops` Conference."

The 77-year-old pope is due to spend three days in Sri Lanka before heading to the Philippines -- Asia`s largest Catholic country.

He is scheduled to travel to the island`s former war zone and conduct mass at a church which suffered damage during the height of fighting between troops and Tamil rebels.

Sri Lanka ended 37-years of ethnic bloodshed after wiping out the leadership of Tamil Tiger rebels in a no-holds-barred 2009 military campaign that has also triggered allegations of war crimes.

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