Pope Francis headed to Colombia on Wednesday to try to help heal the wounds of Latin America's longest-running armed conflict, bolstered by a new cease-fire with a holdout rebel group but fully aware of the fragility of the country's peace process.
During a deeply symbolic five-day visit starting Wednesday, 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 Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or 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's 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 Álvaro Uribe, a fierce opponent of the peace deal, wrote a letter to the pope Tuesday expressing concern that the deal with the rebels had fuelled 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 US$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."
Hurricane diversion. The plane flying Pope 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 neighbour 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 Nicolás 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.
In Bogotá, city workers were busy scrubbing downtown monuments, erecting the stage for a giant outdoor Mass and putting the final touches on a security perimeter surrounding the Nunciature where the pope will sleep every night. While many Colombians hail the pope's humility as a model to emulate, they have questioned the hefty cost of the visit.
"It's great what's happening, the pope is a modest person," Aristobulo Fonseca said as he hung two images of Catholic saints from the rearview mirror of his taxi. "What's not good is how they're making a carnival of this visit and spending so much money."
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.
The event will be packed with symbolism. 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.
ELN treaty. Ahead of Francis' arrival, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos 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's number two, 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.
Monsignor José Octavio Ruiz Arenas, the first archbishop of Villavicencio and now a Vatican official, said a key point that Francis will press is for Colombia to avoid repeating the mistakes of peace processes in Central America, where demobilised guerrilla fighters did not re-integrate into society and instead joined criminal gangs. Colombia's well-entrenched drug traffickers will be a strong draw for rebels who haven't known anything other than jungle warfare for decades, he said.
"When Paul VI went, he spoke about all these problems, but unfortunately all they talk about now are his pretty speeches," Ruiz said. "The same thing happened with John Paul II."
"But if the authorities aren't able to say, 'The pope is right; we have to change' — if there's no goodwill on the part of everyone — the words will just remain like a nice memory," he said.