BOGOTÁ, Colombia – At some point next year, Pope Francis will be back in in Latin America for a visit to Colombia in an attempt to give support to the nation’s peace process, an ongoing effort that aims to end the region’s longest and most violent conflict.
The date of next year’s visit, which is yet to be determined, will make Pope Francis the third head of the Roman Catholic Church to visit one of Latin America’s most devoutly Catholic countries. The first to make the cross-Atlantic pilgrimmage was Pope Paul VI in 1968 and he was followed by Pope John Paul II in 1986.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State of His Holiness The Pope and a man very familiar with Latin America, sent a letter out to Colombian bishops on behalf of Francis for the Holy Week season in which he wrote that the Pope is aware of the search for peace in Colombia.
“The Holy Father wishes to to convey his thoughts to his beloved people of Colombia, to its pastors, bishops and authorities, in the hopes of seeing them soon during one of his trops to Latin America to personally deliver to them the message of peace of Christ the Lord,” Parolin wrote in the letter addressed to Luis Augusto Castro, the President of the Colombian Episcopal Conference.
“The Pope sincerely appreciated the letter recently sent to him by your group (78 bishops across Colombia) and the sincere expressions written on the pages, and he would love to visit Colombia as such a trip would give him immense pleasure. When he has visited your beautiful nation in the past, he always admired the joy and spirit of its inhabitants, and he recognizes the crucial importance of the present moment when, with a renewed hope, its society is trying to build a more just society, a society at peace,” the letter read.
“The presence of Christ, the ‘Prince of Peace,’ the one who makes reconcilliation possible, should be felt to help overcome the suffering and division which the people are trying to overcome. As such, the Pope invites all of the Colombian people to collaborate in the work of peace borne from God’s love,” it continued, “in the work of justice, fraternity, solidarity, dialogue and understanding, the fundamental basics of building a renewed society.”
“A fight like this should be tireless, a battle against all forms of injustice, inequality, corruption, exclusion, evils that destroy the lives of all those in society, and it is a long process and a complex process that does not have spaces in-between or is it made through short-term plans.”
“The peace process must be fomented from the victims of this horrible conflict due to their loss. There must be a continuing commitment to restore the victims’ dignity, to recognize their pain and to repair the damage suffered. The Pope expresses his solidarity, affection and closeness with those who have suffered the consequences of this armed conflict in every way.”
“The process must move forward in encouraging the commitment of the State to the displaced, the survivors of the landmines, those who have suffered theft of land and property, those who have been kidnapped, those who have suffered in other various ways, and wrongs that have been committed against people for decades in the forms of injustice, inequality and marginalization must also be amended.”
“Finally, may those who acted in the name of violence and committed these heinous crimes against their fellow men recognize the painful and damaging consequences of their actions, which hurt not only their victims but their own human dignity, conscience and inner peace.”
“Do not lose the heart and hope through the difficulties of this process and continue working for the truth, justice, reparation and the guarantee to never repeat this terrible period again. May the celebration of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection bear the fruits of reconciliation between the children of Colombia, with the hope of overcoming the violence and evil that has affected them over decades.”
The Pope urged the Catholic Church’s institutions throughout the country to become “field hospitals” in the sense that they can serve as a “safe haven” where the victims and aggressors of the conflict can come together and meet in an atmosphere of peace and forgiveness in order to find healing, and that the walls of these “hospitals” serve as a barrier to keep out the hate and resentment generated by these types of conflicts.
The letter finished with the Pope issuing a prayer to Our Lady of Chiquinquirá (Virgin Mary), the patron saint of Colombia, whose painted image (1562) Pope John Paul II prayed at the feet of in 1986 in the town of the same name in the Andean region of Boyacá.
Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian President who has encouraged and furthered the peace process more so than any other leader in the nation’s history, wrote on his Twitter account that the words of the pontiff serve as “great encouragement for all to keep working toward peace.”
Castro, the head of the Colombian Episcopal Conference, said that it is too early to speak about a specific date for the Pope’s visit but said that he hopes it would be in “early 2016.” This date was tentatively picked as it should coincide with the eventual ratification of the peace agreement should it be completed and completed on time.
Sites that will be visited are unconfirmed but one will surely be the aforementioned Basilica of Chiquinquirá that houses the image of the Virgin, located some two hours north of Bogotá, as well as the Plaza de Bolívar in that latter city, the main city square which houses the Cathedral of Bogotá (the largest in the country) and other important buildings.
“The Pope will tell us when he will arrive and will lead us during those days, and we will make a little human road for him where he will be accompanied by all of us Colombians,” Castro said.
The visit to Colombia will be the first made by Francis and the fifth Latin American nation he will have visited as Pope. Previously, he visited Brazil for the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro and is scheduled to visit Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador.
As for the peace talks, which the government of President Juan Manuel Santos has held since October of 2012 with the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Latin America’s oldest insurgency group that has been in existence since 1964, there is ample progress.
The talks were started in hopes of ending a conflict that has claimed more than 220,000 lives in over half a century of violence, and displaced several million more. So far, a partial agreement on land reform has been achieved, along with the group’s future political participation and the topic of the illicit drug trade. Two more points remain including disarmament and victim recognition and compensation.
The most recent development in the talks came late last year when the FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire, something they have upheld since then for nearly five months. In response, the government brought military figures to the talks to participate for the first time and in mid-March, the Armed Forces announced they would suspend bombing on rebel bases for a month in order to lower the intensity of the long-running conflict.
The Armed Forces officials were expected to work alongside military heads of the FARC to discuss a possible bilateral ceasefire as a parallel to the peace talks and just days after their arrival, the first breakthrough was made as the two sides reached an agreement that establishes a joint program to clear landmines from regions of Colombia most affected by the dangerous bombs.
Unarmed FARC members, unarmed military men trained in landmine detection and removal, along with trained civilians, will carry out the task with the assistance of the Norwegian People’s Aid, a humanitarian organization known best for its de-mining efforts in conflict zones worldwide. The news was monumental as Colombia recorded 6,696 landmine casualties (10 percent of which were children) from 1999 to 2008, according to the Cluster Munition Coalition. Only Cambodia and Afghanistan recorded more deaths and injuries caused by detonated landmines while in Colombia, some 800,000 people are thought to have been affected by the landmines in a non-lethal way.
Perhaps the positive vibes from reaching that agreement continued on as the government announced the suspension of bombing raids on FARC sites. Once the month-long period expires, the Armed Forces will evaluate whether to continue this practice or to return to a plan of attack.
The progress made during the negotiations has led to a boost in the Colombian public’s perception of the peace talks, as well.
Although there is opposition from the most conservative sectors, led by former leader Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) who is the most outspoken opponent of the peace talks and a man with links to illegal right-wing paramilitary groups and sectors of the Armed Forces, the overwhelming majority of the populace supports an end to the violence and the beginning of a new stage of peace.
Given that practically all of the politically conservative figures and groups in the nation that oppose the peace talks are devout Catholics, Pope Francis’ visit could sway them to change their minds.