Can Pope Francis get Colombia to reconcile after decades of war?

Agence France-Presse
pope francis in colombia

Pope Francis urged Colombians Wednesday to reject "vengeance" for the sufferings of their civil conflict and promote forgiveness to overcome lingering resentments as the country seeks lasting peace.

Cheering crowds greeted the 80-year-old Argentine pontiff as he prayed for the country to heal the wounds of war — though some warned that forgiveness was hard after so much violence.

Francis spoke alongside President Juan Manuel Santos, who has overseen a controversial peace deal with the FARC rebel force and a ceasefire with the last active guerrilla group, the ELN.

RelatedFor some Colombian guerrilla fighters, the rebels offered an escape

"The steps taken give rise to hope, in the conviction that seeking peace is an open-ended endeavor, a task which does not relent, which demands the commitment of everyone," Francis said.

"May this determination help us flee from the temptation to vengeance and the satisfaction of short-term partisan interests."

Contested peace process

Santos won a Nobel Peace Prize last year for his part in the accord that has seen the FARC disarm and transform into a political party.

It was a key step toward ending a many-sided territorial and ideological conflict that has left 260,000 people confirmed dead, 60,000 unaccounted for and seven million displaced.

But the peace process has been fraught with division. Critics say the FARC rebels got off too lightly, with amnesties and alternative sentences.

Related: Colombian war victims struggle to find justice. For a while, this girl only wanted revenge.

"This process is a lie. ... I believe in God, but I do not need intermediaries," said Bogotá resident Luis Eduardo Martínez, 63, commenting on the pope's visit.

"We who saw so many victims die have not lost our resentment. I hope God will allow me to let that resentment go, but it is still there."

A plea to youth

In a balcony address later to crowds of young people near Bogotá's cathedral, Francis urged them to "dream big" for the country's future.

"Your youthfulness ... makes you capable of something very difficult in life: forgiving. Forgiving those who have hurt us," he said.

RelatedSchools help Colombians remember what it means to forgive

Francis last year tried unsuccessfully to mediate between Santos and the lead opponent of the FARC accord, conservative leader Alvaro Uribe.

Uribe wrote a Twitter message welcoming "His Holiness Francis" to Colombia on Wednesday, but without commenting on the peace process.

FARC leader Rodrigo Londono also hailed the pope on Thursday, tweeting his thanks to Francis "for supporting the peace and defending social and environmental justice."

Colombians narrowly rejected the accord in a referendum last year. A reworked version was later pushed through Congress.

Santos thanked Francis for coming to "encourage us to take the first step toward reconciliation," in a speech alongside the pope on Thursday.

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"There is no use in ending a war if we still see each other as enemies," Santos added.

Praying for victims

After talks with Santos at the presidential palace, Francis visited Bogotá's cathedral and met with bishops.

He posed for selfies with worshipers and prayed before the image of the Virgin of Chiquinquirá, Colombia's patron saint, which was flown to Bogotá by helicopter for the occasion.

Francis was scheduled later to celebrate a mass for thousands of worshipers in Simón Bolívar Park.

He will then make daily excursions by plane to the cities of Villavicencio, Medellín and Cartagena.

In Villavicencio, he will beatify two Catholic priests killed during the conflict and pray for reconciliation with victims of violence, former guerrilla members and ex-military fighters.

"The more demanding the path that leads to peace and understanding, the greater must be our efforts to acknowledge each other, to heal wounds, to build bridges, to strengthen relationships and support one another," Francis said Thursday.

He then headed inside for private talks with Santos.

AFP's Roland Lloyd Parry and Daniela Quintero reported from Bogotá. 

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