Pope heads to former Colombia war zone to preach forgiveness
Pope Francis travelled Friday to an area once besieged by leftist rebels to pray with victims of Colombia’s long conflict and urge them to overcome their grief by forgiving their former assailants.
The highlight of his visit to the central city of Villavicencio is what the Vatican has termed a “great prayer meeting for national reconciliation.” It’s bound to be a deeply emotional gathering for Francis, who has made reconciliation the central theme of his five-day visit to Colombia after promising to visit the country upon the signing of last year’s peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The event will be attended by thousands of victims from all walks of life: soldiers who lost limbs clearing land mines, mothers whose children were forcibly recruited by the rebels never to be seen again and farmers driven off their land by right-wing paramilitary groups.
Former rebels are also expected to attend but the Vatican and Colombian organizers have given no indication whether the FARC leadership will be there, or even meet with the pope during his visit, reflecting the freshness of the conflict’s wounds and the sensitivities stirred by any public appearance of former guerrillas still despised by wide swathes of the population.
Ahead of the event, the former commander of the FARC published a public letter in which he asked Pope Francis for forgiveness.
“Your frequent reminders about the infinite mercy of God move me to beg for your forgiveness for any tear or pain we’ve caused Colombian society or any of its individuals,” wrote Rodrigo Londono, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko.
The longtime rebel commander, who is undergoing medical treatment in Cuba following a stroke, said he regrets that he is unable to be present for Francis’ visit. Declaring himself a “devout admirer” of the first Latin American pope, he praised his insistence on the dignity of every human being and outspoken criticism of an economic system in which rich nations loot the riches of poorer ones.
In another sign that the pope’s message of reconciliation may be getting through to the deeply polarized nation, the mayor of Medellin confirmed that President Juan Manuel Santos will pray together today at a Mass in Colombia’s second-largest city with his predecessor and arch-rival, President Alvaro Uribe. Previously the two had refused to appear together at any papal events.
Women kneel during Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in Villavicencio, Colombia.