Pope Francis set to travel to Colombia this week to boost peace process between a succession of governments and the guerrilla group FARC, after half a century of war that has left the country deeply divided.
He will spend five days (Sept. 6 – 10) in the country, visiting the capital, Bogota, and the cities of Villavicencio, Medellin and Cartagena, as it marks his 20th foreign trip as pontiff and his fifth to his native Latin America.
The Argentine pope had delayed accepting a government and Church invitation to visit Colombia, where about 80 percent of the population is Catholic, until a viable peace process was under way.
“He had wanted to go for a long time. Now the moment has come,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said.
Leftist FARC, by far Colombia’s biggest rebel group, introduced its new political party last week, a major step in its transition into a civilian organisation after more than 50 years of war that killed 220,000 people.
Under its 2016 peace deal with the government, most FARC fighters were granted amnesty and allowed to participate in politics. Whether the rebels will secure support from Colombians, many of who revile them, remains to be seen.
The peace accord, which was brokered by Cuba and Norway, was initially rejected by a less than 1 percent margin in a referendum before being modified and enacted.
Like the rest of the country, Colombia’s Roman Catholic bishops were divided on their support of the deal; with some saying it was too lenient to the guerrillas. The pope is expected to urge them to put aside their differences during his trip on Sept. 6-10 and help the country move forward.
“The greatest task of the Church in Colombia now is to help stem the polarization around the peace process between the government and the guerrillas,” said Archbishop Octavio Ruiz, a Vatican official and Colombian.
“This is a time for us to accept the grandeur of forgiveness, to leave behind us this dark period of war and blood.”