Pope Francis gave majority Buddhist Sri Lanka its first Catholic saint today during a seaside ceremony before thousands of people who packed the oceanfront of the capital, Colombo.
Francis is in Asia on a six-day tour intended to build the Roman Catholic Church's following on a continent that holds 60 percent of the world's population but only 12 percent of Catholics.
As church bells rang, the pope canonized Joseph Vaz, a priest who worked against the persecution of Catholics by the island's 17th-century Protestant Dutch rulers.
Born in India in 1651, Vaz crept onto the tropical island disguised as a porter and secretly preached before being captured and accused of spying. He was given protection by a Buddhist king. Vaz was credited with converting some 30,000 people and creating a network of priests up until his death in 1711.
The church says Vaz almost single-handedly re-established Catholicism in Sri Lanka, known then as Ceylon. In his canonization message Wednesday, the pope make a plea for religious freedom on the island: "Each individual must be free alone or in association with others, to seek the truth, and to openly express his or her religious convictions, free from intimidation and external compulsion," he said. Francis told the hushed crowds that the Vatican's newest saint is an example of religious tolerance relevant to Sri Lanka today. The country is still healing from a decades-long civil war and is emerging from a presidential election that underscored ethnic and religious divisions.
Sri Lanka, where Catholics make up some 7 percent of the population, greeted the pontiff with elephants, enthusiasm and pageantry.
Massive crowds await Francis at his next stop, the Philippines, which is Asia's only Catholic country. The pope will celebrate an outdoor Mass in Manila that is expected to be attended by millions of people.