BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Pope Francis received a spirited, symbol-filled welcome to Colombia on Wednesday as he began a five-day visit aimed at helping heal the wounds and divisions left by Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict.
The arriving pope was greeted at Bogota’s military air base by President Juan Manuel Santos and an orchestra mixing classics by Vivaldi and Beethoven with rhythmic cumbia music popular along Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
In a gesture likely to mark the deep symbolism of the trip, he was given a commemorative peace dove sculpted by an adolescent youth born in a jungle camp to a rebel father and a politician mother after she was taken captive by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 2002. Clara Rojas, now a congresswoman, did not see her son again until 2008 when he was 3.
The first pope from Latin America looked thrilled to be back in Colombia, the first country he visited after he was ordained in 1970.
He smiled widely as he waved from the Popemobile to thousands of well-wishers who lined up for hours for a glimpse of the wildly popular pontiff along the 15-kilometer (9-mile) route from the airport to the Vatican’s embassy, where he was to rest after a long day flying from Rome. Dozens of cellphone-snapping youth trailed the motorcade on bicycles while Francis greeted a few devotees who got a little too close to the Popemobile with high-fives
During his visit, Francis is expected to press Colombian leaders to address the social and economic disparities that fueled five decades of armed rebellion, while encouraging ordinary Colombians to balance their need for justice with forgiveness.
In a video message on the eve of his departure, Francis urged all Colombians to take a “first step” and reach out to one another for the sake of peace and the future.
“Peace is what Colombia has been looking for and working for for such a long time,” he said. “A stable and lasting peace, so that we can see one another and treat one another as brothers, not as enemies.”
A year after the Colombian government signed the peace accord with the FARC, the nation remains bitterly divided over the terms of the deal even as guerrillas have laid down their arms and begun returning to civilian life. Even the Catholic Church hierarchy, which was instrumental in facilitating the peace talks and is now spearheading the process of reconciliation, was divided over what many Colombians saw as the overly generous terms offered to rebels behind atrocities.
Former President Alvaro Uribe, a fierce opponent of the peace deal, wrote a letter to the pope Tuesday expressing concern that the deal with the rebels had fueled a rise in drug trafficking and created economic uncertainties with the potential to destroy Colombia’s social fabric.
Meanwhile, the nation’s top drug fugitive, the target of a $5 million manhunt by U.S. authorities, appealed to the Pope to pray that he and his fellow combatants be allowed to lay down their weapons as part of the peace process — a proposal the Colombian government has rejected out of hand.
“I’m convinced that the only way out of the conflict is dialogue,” said Dairo Usuga, appearing publicly for the first time, in a video published on social media. “The Catholic Church is a moral reference and we believe that with its prayers we can move forward in our goal of abandoning our weapons.”
The plane flying Francis to Colombia left Rome Wednesday morning and had to change its flight path to avoid Category 5 Hurricane Irma. A half-hour into the flight, he told journalists he wanted to “help Colombia in its path of peace.”
He also asked for prayers for Colombia’s neighbor Venezuela, whose problems are likely to demand some of his attention, hoping it finds “a good stability and dialogue with everyone.” The Vatican last year sponsored dialogue between President Nicolas Maduro’s government and the opposition and bishops from the country are slated to meet with Francis in Colombia as pressure builds on the embattled socialist to yield power.
The highlight of Francis’ trip comes Friday, with a meeting and prayer of reconciliation between victims of the conflict and former guerrillas in Villavicencio, a city south of Bogota surrounded by territory long held by the FARC.
Francis will beatify two Colombian priests killed during decades of guerrilla warfare, declaring them martyrs who were killed out of hatred for the Catholic faith.
And the meeting will be framed by one of the most poignant symbols of the conflict: the mutilated Christ statue that was rescued from a church in the western town of Bojaya after a FARC mortar attack in 2012. Some 300 people were sheltering in the church when it was hit during a three-way firefight between FARC rebels, right-wing militias and the army. At least 79 people died and 100 were injured.
In total, the conflict left more than 250,000 people dead, 60,000 missing and millions more displaced.
Ahead of Francis’ arrival, Santos’ government and the last remaining major rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, signed a bilateral cease-fire agreement, a significant step toward negotiating a permanent peace deal.
The Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said the key message of the trip is “the capacity to forgive: to forgive, and receive forgiveness.”
Francis is the third pope to visit Colombia, following Pope Paul VI in 1968 and St. John Paul II in 1986. Both used their visits to show solidarity with victims of violence, discrimination and poverty and to urge government authorities to fix the structural and societal problems that have made Colombia one of the most unequal countries in Latin America.
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