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Some Sri Lankans want pope’s visit postponed

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Sri Lanka, Dec 06 (AP) - Some Roman Catholic priests and laypeople in Sri Lanka are seeking the postponement of Pope Francis' trip to the island nation next month, citing the visit's closeness to the country's presidential election and possible violence linked to the poll. Francis is due to arrive in Sri Lanka for a three-day visit on Jan. 13, five days after the election. Sri Lankan Catholic leader the Rev. Leo Perera has written to the country's bishops saying that in the past, the days immediately following elections have been marked by violence, and that Francis' presence during a period of turmoil could "sully the image of the papacy." Perera suggested that the bishops recommend to the Vatican that the pope's visit be postponed. "Perhaps the understanding that His Holiness does not visit a country too close to an important national election can be cited as a valid reason for the postponement," read the letter, which was written late last month and made public this past week. "This also is justified as the president has gone back on his assurances that the two events would not be too close to each other." President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, are locked in an acrimonious campaign for the election. Meanwhile, the Christian Solidarity Movement, a Sri Lankan human rights group, said it had decided to write to the Vatican asking that the pope not be "trapped" in politics. In a statement seen by The Associated Press on Saturday, the Rev. Sarath Iddamalgoda said that at a recent meeting, members of the movement expressed opposition to Francis' images being used in campaign billboards. "A decision was taken to write a letter to the Vatican authorities not to allow the pope to be trapped in Sri Lankan politics," Iddamalgoda said. Billboards with the images of Rajapaksa posing with Francis have been erected in many parts of the country where Catholics live in large numbers. More than 70 percent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people are Buddhists, but support from the country's 1.2 million Catholics will be crucial in the election. The billboards are likely being used to portray Rajapaksa - a Buddhist - as a conciliatory leader amid allegations that his administration promotes Buddhist extremism against Christians and Muslims.