Pope in Colombia to help heal wounds of 50-year war

September 7, 2017 - 7:36 AM
Pope Francis is welcomed by Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos upon his arrival n Bogota. (photo by Henry Romero, Reuters)

BOGOTA — Pope Francis arrived in Colombia on Wednesday with a message of unity for a nation deeply divided by a peace deal that ended a five-decade war with Marxist FARC rebels but left many victims of the bloodshed wary of the national healing process.

Francis, making his 20th foreign trip since becoming pontiff in 2013 and his fifth to his native Latin America, arrived on an Alitalia flight to Bogota. He will travel later in the week to the cities of Villavicencio, Medellin and Cartagena.

Greeted by President Juan Manuel Santos as attendees waved white handkerchiefs, the Argentine pope hopes his presence will help build bridges in a nation torn apart by bitter feuding over a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC.

Speaking to reporters on the Bogota-bound plane, Francis said the trip was “a bit special because it is being made to help Colombia go forward on its path to peace.”

The route took his plane over neighboring Venezuela, racked by months of protests against President Nicolas Maduro, who has tightened his hold on power amid an escalating economic crisis.

The leader of the world’s Roman Catholics said he hoped Venezuela “might find stability with dialogue for all.”

He sent “cordial greetings” in a telegram from the plane to Maduro and Venezuelans.

“Praying that all in the nation may promote paths of solidarity, justice and harmony, I willingly invoke upon all of you God’s blessings of peace,” he said.

For Colombians, Francis will encourage reconciliation as they prepare to receive 7,000 former FARC fighters into society and repair divisions after a war that killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions over five decades.

The FARC, which began as a peasant revolt in 1964 and battled more than a dozen governments, has formed a political party and now hopes to use words instead of weapons to effect changes in Colombia’s social and economic model.

But many Colombians are furious that the 2016 peace deal with the government granted fighters amnesty and some will be rewarded with seats in congress.

A referendum on the deal last year was narrowly rejected, before being later modified and passed by congress.

“Peace is what Colombia has been seeking for a long time and is working to achieve,” the pope said in a video message ahead of his arrival. “A stable, lasting peace, so that we see and treat each other as brothers, never as enemies.”

References to the country’s recent peace were immediate. A teenage boy, born in 2004 to vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas when she was held captive in the jungle by the FARC, handed Francis a white porcelain dove as a welcome present.

Enthusiasm for visit

Children in costume greeted the pope with traditional dancing as he stood chatting with Santos and the first lady, Maria Clemencia, on the red carpet at the air base.

Anger over the accord has not dampened enthusiasm for the pope’s visit. People lined up all day to see the ‘pope mobile’ pass by, queues stretched around the cathedral in Bogota as residents sought passes for his events, and street vendors sold t-shirts, baseball caps and posters carrying Francis’s image.

“Pope Francis coming to Colombia has to unite the people. We cannot continue to be polarized. We must learn to live in peace and respect our differences,” Lucia Camargo, a pensioner, said as she lined up for a glimpse of the pope.

Politicians and Colombia’s Catholic bishops were divided on their support for the peace deal, with some saying it was too lenient on the guerrillas. The pope is expected to urge them to set aside their differences.

“The visit will leave us a sense of union, of forgiveness,” Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa told Reuters. “Colombia is very polarized at the moment. There are many passions, many hatreds.”

Reconciliation will be the emphasis for events on Friday in the city of Villavicencio, south of Bogota, where the pope will listen to testimonials from people whose lives were affected by the violence and then deliver a homily. Victims and former rebels who demobilized prior to the accord will attend.

The pope will not meet FARC leaders or the opposition.