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 2014 and his fifth to his native Latin America, arrives in Bogota and will travel later in the week to the cities of Villavicencio, Medellin and Cartagena.
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 (FARC).
Speaking to reporters on his plane heading to Bogota, Francis said the trip was “a bit special because it is being made to help Colombia to go forward on its path to peace.”
The route to Colombia will take his plane over neighbouring Venezuela, which has been racked by months of protests against President Nicolas Maduro, who has tightened his hold on power amid an escalating economic crisis.
Francis said he hoped “the country might find good stability with dialogue for all.”
The pontiff will encourage reconciliation as Colombians 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 under the 2016 peace deal with the government, fighters were granted amnesty and some will be rewarded with seats in congress instead of cells in prison.
“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.”
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos late last year called a referendum on the peace accord, expecting the deal signed days earlier to easily win popular approval. But he underestimated the level of animosity for the group and it was narrowly rejected. The deal was later modified and passed by congress.
The anger over the accord has not been seen ahead of the pope’s visit. Queues stretched around a cathedral in Bogota as residents sought passes for his events, while street vendors sold t-shirts, fans 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.
“I never thought I’d see Pope Francis in person, a man who renewed my faith with everything he has done and who is sure to renew Colombia’s faith so that we set aside our differences and live in true peace,” said cabinet maker Antonio Ballesteros, 53, in Bolivar Square.
Politicians and Colombia’s Catholic bishops also 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.
There, in what is billed as the Great Prayer Meeting for National Reconciliation, 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.
The trip will have interrelated themes each day: “Builders of Peace, Promoters of Life” in Bogota, “Reconciliation with God, among Colombians and with Nature in Villavicencio,” the “Christian Vocation and Apostolate” in Medellin and “The Dignity of People and Human Rights” in Cartagena.