Tamils flock to see Pope

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For 11-year-old Mary Cristobal and 1,800 other Christians, a trip to Colombo to see Pope John Paul was an odyssey into enemy territory. She and the other Tamil pilgrims live in Jaffna, on the northern tip of Sri Lanka, which for 12 years has been held byTamil guerrillas, and besieged by government troops.

Usually, the only way to leave is at night, crossing in an open boat a lagoon often strafed by army gunners. But because the Pope was flying into Sri Lanka, the final stop on his punishing Asian tour, and because a new ceasefire between the rebels and Colombo has endured for an astonishing 12 days, the pilgrims were given safe passage.

"I'd never before seen a train - or this thing called television," said Mary, in her best dress.

Led by the Catholic fathers across the battlelines, the Tamils will attend an open-air mass today in Colombo. More than 250,000 people, nearly a quarter of all Sri Lanka's Christians, are expected to hear the pontiff beatify a 17th-century missionary, Father Joseph Vaz, who was persecuted by Dutchmen.

The Pope, who flew in yesterday from Australia, no longer looks the embodiment of robust Christianity. After a taxing 11-day tour, he appeared frail. His left hand shook uncontrollably, his smile replaced by a wince of pain from a hip operation that has taken too long to heal.

Security has been extremely tight for the 24-hour visit, with an extra 15,000 police drafted in. But the pontiff shrugged off possible danger. He rode into Colombo from the airport with his Popemobile's bullet-proof windows open.

Most Sri Lankans are Buddhists, and many are seething over the Pope's refusal to apologise for his dismissive remarks about Buddhism as a "negative" faith in which salvation is obtained through "indifference" to the world.

The Pope tried to mollify the Buddhist clergy - who are boycotting the visit - by claiming he had "the highest regard for the followers of Buddhism and its transcendental virtues".