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Next Stop for Pope Francis Is Philippines

Pope Francis frees a dove in Madhu, Sri Lanka, Jan. 14, 2015.

Pope Francis travels Thursday to Asia's only majority Roman Catholic nation where he will celebrate an outdoor Mass with a crowd that is expected to number in the millions.

The pontiff’s visit to the Philippines is the first since Pope John Paul II’s in 1995. While there, Pope Francis will also meet with some survivors of the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan.

On Wednesday, the pope called for unity and forgiveness during a sermon in Sri Lanka's war-torn north. Tens of thousands from across the country's religious and ethnic divide gathered at the Our Lady of Madhu shrine to hear his message.

Rebels unsuccessfully fought a 25-year civil war for independence in the Tamil-dominated north.

In a prayer at the jungle church, Pope Francis denounced the "evil of war," saying the conflict that left up to 100,000 people dead "tore open the heart of Sri Lanka."

Earlier, the pope canonized the Reverend Joseph Vaz during a Mass in the capital, Colombo.

Pope Francis Travels to Sri Lanka and the Philippines
Pope Francis Travels to Sri Lanka and the Philippines

Pope Francis said Sri Lanka's first saint "shows us the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace."

"Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. Each individual must be free alone or in association with others to seek the truth and to openly express his or her religious conviction free from intimidation and external compulsion," said the pope.

Vaz was a 17th-century missionary credited with reviving the Catholic faith during a time of persecution by Dutch Calvinists.

Meanwhile, to mark the pope's visit, Sri Lankan authorities released nearly 600 prisoners arrested for minor offenses.