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Francis pushes for peace in Colombia: His emphasis on reconciliation boosts peace deal supporters.

BOGOTA, VILLAVICENCIO, MEDELLIN and CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA * Some 220,000 people were killed in the brutal 50-year conflict among the Colombian government and rebel guerilla forces, and an estimated 5.7 million were displaced from their homes. The fighting invaded people's everyday lives, with bombs even dropping on churches where people sought refuge.

In a whirlwind four-city, four-day visit to Colombia Sept. 6-10, Pope Francis repeatedly exhorted the survivors of the conflict, which ended last year with a controversial peace deal, to move beyond the desire for vengeance in favor of pursuing reconciliation toward the hope of a future united society

In Bogota Sept. 7, Francis warned a million Colombians at Mass in Simon Bolivar Park against the "corrupting Darkness ... of thirst for vengeance and the hatred which stains the hands of those who would right wrongs on their own authority"

With hundreds of thousands in Villavicencio Sept. 8, Francis called on the victims of the bloodshed to "rise up out of the swamp of violence and bitterness" in order to embark on a new path forward for their country.

"When victims overcome the understandable temptation to vengeance, they become the most credible protagonists for the process of building peace," the pope said at an outdoor Mass at Catama field in Villavicencio, a town near where one infamous 2002 bombing killed 119 noncombatants hiding in a church.

"Reconciliation is not an abstract word," Francis told the crowds, many who had survived such awful violence. "Reconciliation means opening a door to every person who has experienced the tragic reality of conflict."

The pope's call in Villavicencio reflected the focus of his trip to Colombia, which had been long-anticipated. Several times over the past two years, Francis had told journalists he would come to the country as soon as the peace deal was finalized, or, in his words, its outcome was "bulletproof."

The 2016 deal, which ended fighting between the Colombian government and rebel FARC forces, has been controversial. Although it earned President Juan Santos last year's Nobel Peace Prize, it remains unpopular with about half of his people, who think it treats the former guerillas too kindly.

During the pope's Sept. 8 visit to Villavicencio, a survivor of the 2002 church bombing said Francis' personal effort to back the deal may bear good fruit in helping more Colombians see its merits.

Leiner Palacios Asprila, who was in a building adjacent to the church where people were seeking refuge in Bojaya, said he thinks the pope's words will help those opposed to the peace process change their minds.

"The pope can help all the people who are unsure about the process to think differently about it," Palacios told a small group of journalists.

Another survivor said the visit filled her with hope that her fellow citizens will heed Francis' call for reconciliation.

"For the pope to call for reconciliation fills us with hope that Colombia will hear his message and do what it should've done a long time ago, and that is to work for peace," said Milena Cardenales, who at age 6 lost her mother when a rebel group occupied Colombia's Supreme Court in 1985.

"His meeting with us should reaffirm to everyone else in this country that this is what we want, as victims of the conflict," said Cardenales, speaking outside a gathering for national reconciliation Sept. 8.

"I hope that tells the rest of the country that this is the right thing to do, that they unite with us--those who have been directly affected by this and who have lost our loved ones, our own flesh and blood," she said.

In a sign of the possible impact of the pope's visit, one of the peace deal's most vocal critics, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, was seen in the crowd at the pope's Mass in Medellin Sept. 9.

In a later tweet of gratitude to Francis for the experience, Uribe said: "I will strive to improve on my weaknesses."

One of the rebel FARC leaders was so moved by Francis' visit that he even issued a public letter to the pope Sept. 8, begging forgiveness for his group's actions during the five decades of the Colombian conflict.

"Your repeated expressions about God's infinite mercy move me to plead your forgiveness for any tears and pain that we have caused the people of Colombia," wrote Rodrigo Londono, known by the nom de guerre Timochenko.

Beyond the reconciliation message, each day the pope spent in Colombia was marked by poignant moments.

At the gathering Sept. 8, Francis took former FARC guerilla fighter Juan Carlos Murcia Perdomo into an embrace. As the two hugged, cameras focused on Murcia's left arm, where his left hand was missing because of his involvement in the fighting.

Outside the Vatican nunciature in Bogota the evening of Sept. 7, Francis greeted young people with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities. Several of them treated him to a traditional Colombian dance wearing colorful frilled outfits.

And Francis' last day in the country Sept. 10, opened in dramatic fashion. While greeting crowds lining the streets of Cartagena soon after arriving there, he banged his head on the inside of the popemobile, which had slowed abruptly to avoid a throng of people pushing toward the vehicle.

The pope was left with a black left eye and a cut on the eyebrow that dripped blood onto his white cassock. The cut was bandaged, and he carried on with his program for the day Asked what happened by someone in the crowd at a later event, Francis quipped: "I gave myself a punch!"

'First, most important step'

Francis arrived in the Colombian capital of Bogota from Rome late on Sept. 6. He spent each night during the visit in the capital, but traveled during the day to Villavicencio Sept. 8, Medellin Sept. 9, and Cartagena Sept. 10.

The pope opened the trip Sept. 7 by meeting with Santos and the country's other political leaders outside the Casa de Narino presidential palace in Bogota. In a speech there, he urged leaders to protect the peace deal despite its unpopularity

"There has been too much hatred and vengeance," said the Argentine pope, speaking quietly as he looked up from his podium. "We do not want any type of violence whatsoever to restrict or destroy one more life!"

Francis asked in particular that the political leaders would have the determination to "flee from the temptation to vengeance" after the years of war. The pope spoke following Santos, who has been president since 2010 and will finish his second and last term next August.

The president thanked Francis for accompanying us in this unique moment in the history our country" Santos said his nation is taking the "first, most important step" toward reconciliation with the peace deal and said his people need "the marvelous force of love" that helps people have the capability to forgive one another.

Francis traveled Sept. 8 to Villavicencio, about 75 miles south of Bogota, where he celebrated an outdoor Mass and took part in the national gathering for reconciliation, which included 6,000 people. He heard testimonies at the gathering from two former guerilla group members and two victims of the long conflict.

"I wish ... as a brother and a father, to say this: Colombia, open your heart as the people of God and be reconciled," the pope told the group. "Fear neither the truth nor justice."

"Do not resist that reconciliation which allows you to draw near and encounter one another as brothers and sisters, and surmount enmity," he said.

In Medellin Sept. 9, Francis told a crowd of some 1.3 million at an outdoor Mass that being a Christian is not about how closely you follow doctrinal laws or precepts, but rather how you live out the essential values of the faith.

Speaking on a platform with a backdrop of the lush, green Andean hillside, the pope said Christians should not be "paralyzed by a rigorous interpretation" of the law.

"Jesus teaches that being in relationship with God cannot be a cold attachment to norms and laws, nor the observance of some outward actions that do not lead to a real change of life," he said.

On Sept. 10 in Cartagena, a historic port city on Colombia's Caribbean coast, Francis told Colombians that the process of recovery and reconciliation after their 50-year conflict will be long. He said they will have to build peace for themselves, step-by-step, and primarily with personal encounters between people who have harmed each other.

"This path of reintegration into the community begins with a dialogue of two persons," the pope told crowds gathered for the outdoor Mass at Cartagena's Contecar Sea Terminal. "Nothing can replace that healing encounter; no collective process excuses us from the challenge of meeting, clarifying, forgiving."

"Only if we help to untie the knots of violence, will we unravel the complex threads of disagreements," he told the crowds, which stretched alongside the port's large shipping containers and cranes. "If Colombia wants a stable and lasting peace, it must urgently take a step in this direction!"

Francis was the third pope to visit Colombia, following Pope Paul VI in 1968 and Pope John Paul II in 1986. It was Francis' 20th voyage outside Italy as pope, and Colombia was the 28th country he has visited.

The pope's next scheduled visit is to Bangladesh and Myanmar Nov. 27Dec. 2.

[Soli Solgado, staff writer for Global Sisters Report, contributed to this report.]

By JOSHUA J. McELWEE

jmclewee@ncronline.org

ON THE WEB

For complete coverage of Pope Francis' visit to Colombia, visit NCRonline.org/feature-series/ francis-in-colombia/stories.

Caption: Above left: Pope Francis walks with children as he arrives to celebrate Mass at Simon Bolivar Park in Bogota, Colombia, Sept. 7. --CNS/Paul Haring

Caption: Above right: People in the crowd are seen before Pope Francis celebrates Mass in Cartagena, Colombia, Sept. 10. --CNS/Paul Haring

Caption: Right: People are seen near Hogar San Jose children's home in Medellin, Colombia, Sept. 9. --CNS/Paul Haririg

Caption: Pope Francis plants a tree during a visit to the Cross of Reconciliation at Los Fundadores Park in Villavicencio, Colombia, Sept. 8. --CNS/L'Osservatore Romano

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Title Annotation:WORLD
Author:McElwee, Joshua J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Sep 22, 2017
Words:1707
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