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Pope Holds Mass in Sri Lanka's War-Torn North

Pope Francis smiles as he speaks to Buddhist monks after an inter-religious meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015.

Pope Francis has preached a message calling for unity and forgiveness during a service at a church in Sri Lanka's war-torn north.

Tens of thousands of people from across the country's religious and ethnic divide gathered Wednesday at Our Lady of Madhu shrine. It was the fist visit by a pope to the Tamil-dominated north, where rebels fought a 25-year civil war for independence.

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 had "tore open the heart of Sri Lanka."

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

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," he said. "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."

Vaz is 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.

The pope will travel Thursday to the Philippines on his week-long visit to the region.

Millions of people are expected to attend an outdoor mass there in Asia's only majority Roman Catholic nation. Pope Francis will also meet with victims of the devastating 2013 Typhoon Haiyan.

The last pope to visit the Philippines was John Paul II, who went there in 1995.